Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Hard for US to escape Middle East

Hard for US to escape Middle East
Published 23 Jul 2013 

Marty Harris is the Lowy Institute's Assistant Digital Editor.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are heading to Washington for peace talks.

This marks the culmination of successive rounds of 'shuttle diplomacy' by John Kerry since becoming Secretary of State in February. In those six months Kerry has travelled to Middle East six times.

President Obama put significant diplomatic muscle into resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his first term, and got seriously burned in the process. What's different now? Khaled Elgindy over at Brookings argues that little on the ground has changed since the last round of negotiations broke down in 2010. Elgindy believes that part of the reason Netanyahu and Abbas are going along with negotiations is so that neither can be blamed for a failure to restart talks.

Kerry's determination is indeed hard to explain, aside from his oft cited personal commitment to the issue. The Israeli Government is focused on other regional issues such as Iran's nuclear program and the continuing ramifications of the Arab uprisings. On the Palestinian side, continued delays in Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks, and the resulting lack of national unity, means that President Abbas' mandate to make far-reaching concessions in any final status talks might be limited.

All sides have been cagey about what the initial negotiations will be about, and the elements of the agreement that enabled dialogue to resume. Secretary of State Kerry said only that the agreement 'establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis'. But Kerry and, it seems, most of the Palestinians and Israelis involved, are keen to keep details secret. As Kerry stated in Amman:

I think all of us know that candid, private conversations are the very best way to preserve the time and the space for progress and understanding when you face difficult, complicated issues such as Middle East peace. The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private.

Yet some details have emerged.[fold]

Reportedly, the Palestinians have committed to at least nine months of negotiations, and have agreed not to pursue punitive actions against Israel in the international arena.

The Israeli side is reportedly going to release a number of 'hard core' Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. This part of the agreement holds the most promise, but is also fraught with difficulty. If, for example, the Israelis released Marwan Barghouti, a man slated as a future president of Palestine but convicted by Israel of five counts of murder, this would be a significant demonstration of goodwill. However, any release of prisoners convicted of terrorism offences will face legal challenges in Israel.

Kerry's focus on the Middle East since February has led some to ask whether Foggy Bottom has forgotten about the 'pivot'. Here on The Interpreter we've been discussing the pivot for ages, analysing the commitment of various US officials to the concept.

Ambassador Martin Indyk (who will reportedly mediate this round of talks) told the Lowy Institute in May that despite America's best efforts to disengage from the Middle East, events from that unstable part of the world have the habit of drawing the US back in. Similarly, Michael Fullilove argues that pivoting a nation as powerful and engaged as America is exceedingly difficult, and that in order to do so Obama must resist the growing pressure to reengage in the Middle East.

Even within the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents 'one headache among a multitude' for the US. The civil war in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program and continuing instability in Egypt are other regional crises with which the US has to contend.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy Tel Aviv.

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