x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Kerry stoic under fire on Middle East policy

US secretary of state is positive of progress amid deadlocked negotiations over Iran, Israel and Palestine, and Syria's war.

John Kerry boards his plane at Amman airport en route to Israel. Jason Reed / AP
John Kerry boards his plane at Amman airport en route to Israel. Jason Reed / AP

During nine days of on-the-road diplomacy, John Kerry has been lambasted by Israel’s prime minister over possible concessions to Iran and lectured by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister about getting tougher with Syria.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators got into a shouting match during peace talks Mr Kerry initiated, and he hurried to join negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme that deadlocked short of an agreement.

Yet the US secretary of state showed little evidence of being troubled. To the contrary, he took every opportunity to say that things were looking up.

“You need optimism in a place that has a lot of pessimism,” he said in Israel last week. “I think it’s good to have optimism. The schedule may slip a little here and there, but if you don’t have targets, if you don’t set ambitious targets, you don’t get anything done.”

The coming months will show if he is right. Mr Kerry came away from three days of Iran negotiations without wrapping up the first steps toward a comprehensive deal, and he is pushing for a Syria peace conference next month that may not happen. He faces a self-imposed April “target” for efforts to reach a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Each is a major challenge, and successes or failures may set the course of events in the region for years – as well as determine Mr Kerry’s legacy as his nation’s top diplomat. He faces combative members of Congress siding with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism that US offers to ease some sanctions on Iran would be a “mistake of historic proportions”.

The intensity of Mr Kerry’s involvement in the Middle East runs counter to commentary suggesting that the US is retreating from the region after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and President Barack Obama’s decision to drop plans to strike Syria for its chemical weapons use. Mr Kerry, 69, is the one-man counterweight to the Asia pivot championed by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and the president.

“Whatever the imagery that the US is withdrawing from the region, it’s pretty clear that Kerry is not,” said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who was Mr Obama’s adviser on Iran.

That is evident from Mr Kerry’s travel schedule. He is wrapping up his eighth visit to the region since taking office in February, twice the number of trips during Clinton’s first year, and his sixth to Israel. He has flown during this swing to five countries – the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan – and taken a motorcade from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Mr Kerry held talks with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas on the peace process, though he has been unable to bring them together in the same room, and signalled that the US may offer its own ideas for a peace plan early next year if the two sides fail to make progress. He is “unquestionably committed” to the effort, said Mr Ross.

“We’ve had very few secretaries of state who, I think, have the combination of energy and tenacity that he combines,” he said. “What he throws himself into, he doesn’t give up on.”

As shown by his sudden detour to Geneva late last week for Iran negotiations, Mr Kerry’s travels have an element of spontaneity, which is unusual on trips that require intricate planning of security measures, motorcade routes and synchronising schedules with foreign leaders. Aboard his specially configured Boeing 757-200 jet, Mr Kerry abandons business attire in favour of jeans and often a blue sweatshirt from Yale University, his undergraduate alma mater.

In public, Mr Kerry seems to be encountering a rough time. The Saudis have expressed unhappiness that Mr Obama failed to bomb Syria and is moving towards a deal that would reduce the chances of American military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Before heading to Riyadh from Cairo, Mr Kerry said there were differences between the allies, including over Mr Obama’s decision to accept a chemical-weapons disarmament plan for Syria.

“There are some countries in the region that wanted the United States to do one thing with respect to Syria, and we have done something else,” he said.

Mr Kerry’s planned 30-minute meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah extended to two hours as he explained US choices and sought to persuade the monarch that Mr Obama’s Syria and Iran policies were not a retreat from US commitments, including defence ties, according to US officials.

Similarly, he faced questions from leaders in Egypt, where the US has suspended military aid after the armed forces toppled the elected Islamist government, and criticisms from Mr Netanyahu, who portrayed the US administration as showing weakness in negotiating to curtail what Israel says are Iran’s efforts to make nuclear weapons.

Mr Kerry said the US remained a major player in the Middle East and would continue to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Let me be crystal clear,” he said in Cairo on November 3. “The United States of America is deeply engaged in the Middle East peace process, and we are essential to the ability of that peace process to be able to be resolved.”

The US “will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for the Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others”, he said. “We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them.”

Just because Mr Obama “didn’t go ahead and launch missiles” against Syria, instead accepting a Russia-backed deal to eliminate its chemical weapons, “is not a reason to start doubting his resolve with respect to the region,” Mr Kerry said on the news programme Meet the Press on Sunday. “I think folks understand that, and will continue to work on the Middle East peace process.”

* Bloomberg