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Another secretary of state, same Middle East impasse

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Hardly had the excitement over U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit subsided when his Secretary of State, John Kerry, followed up with what seems here as a surge of fresh energy. If the president talked in general terms about the need to move forward toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry, already on his second visit to the Middle East and Israel, seems anxious to turn words into actions.

Like many secretaries of state before him, Kerry brings to the region the all too familiar American blend of vision with pragmatism, idealism with can-do resolution. Except that most of his predecessors wore out their shoes in their countless shuttles to the region, and have accomplished very little. Will he succeed where they have failed?

The skepticism about Kerry’s chances of success stem in part from the belief of many of us here that Americans are basically naive in their perspectives of the Middle East. Pundits here like to quote the American senator, who, in his frustration, once complained: "Why can’t those Arabs and Jews just sit down, and like good Christians settle their differences?"

But seriously, think about the Great Middle East initiative of the Bush administration or President Obama’s "Engaging Islam" initiative and compare them to the situation of the Middle East today. Shouldn’t that instill some modesty into any aspiring American official who comes here determined to solve the conflict once and for all?

Another reason why people might doubt Kerry’s prospects of success is that they are not sure his president is fully behind him on this matter. It seems more likely that Obama came to the region to tell Israelis and Palestinians that if and when they get serious, America will be there for them. Then he went home, and in a paraphrase on Winston Churchill’s standing order to his staff during the Second World War (not to ever wake him up at night unless the Germans invade Britain), he sort of told his secretary of state: "If you wish to spend your time in the Middle East with these people, it’s fine with me. But do me a favour, call me only when they’re truly ready to sign a real peace accord. Then I’ll make time for a photo op at Camp David."

Looking at American involvement in the Middle East in the last seven decades through the prism of the President-Secretary of State duo brings up interesting insights. In 1948, for example, President Harry S. Truman was very much in favour of recognizing the Jewish state while his secretary of state, the venerated Gen. George Marshall, as well as the most high-ranking officials at the State Department, were vehemently opposed.

Clark Clifford, then a young advisor of Truman, recounted in his memoirs, which he had published with Richard Holbrooke in the New Yorker in 1991, how the torn-apart president had to manoeuver the recognition without making his angry secretary of State resign over it.

John Foster Dulles, secretary of state between 1953 and 1959, was given by President Dwight Eisenhower a free hand to deal with the Middle East. Dulles used that leverage to shift the American approach from what he believed had been a too pro-Israeli stance toward a more even-handed one.

In a major speech on August 26, 1955, before the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, he listed the obstacles to peace: Palestinian refugees; the Arab fear of Israeli expansionism; and a lack of fixed borders (an issue Kerry was still raising with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, six decades later).

While Dulles, one of the most powerful secretaries of state America ever had, was entertaining ideas about the resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, the Israelis, weary of Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s intransigence, schemed together with the British and the French in the Suez Affair of late October 1956, which highly embarrassed Eisenhower, then campaigning to get reelected.

Not to mention the fact that under the watch of the same Dulles, architect of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which promised "to use armed force to support any Middle Eastern country that asked for help against Communist aggression," Nasser’s Egypt fell into the hands of the Soviets. So much for U.S. accomplishments in the Middle East in the 1950s.

I could go on and list the other able, well-wishing people like William Rogers, Henry Kissinger, Warren Christopher, George Schultz, James Baker and the others, who, with or without their respective presidents’ involvement, have been since trying their best to resolve the conflict. Their memoirs reveal how great their efforts were, as well as their frustration.

Having said all that, the lack of results doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be admiring the American persistence and determination. Peace, however, will only come when Arabs and Jews realize that the status quo is bad, and that war is worse. Once they reach that conclusion, the United States can step in to alleviate the difficulties, soothe the fears and help shoulder the economic burden involved. This is how it worked in the cases of the Egyptian-Israeli and the Jordanian-Israeli peace processes. This is how it should work in the Palestinian-Israeli track as well. I truly hope it happens in the Obama-Kerry term.


Uri Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for The Miami Herald.


—McClatchy Tribune Services

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