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Pieces of peace

Like other projects in the Middle East, John Kerry’s effort reaches a dead end

Israel’s cancellation of the release of the last batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners in response to the Palestinian Authority’s application for membership to 15 UN treaties and conventions may bring to an end the current phase of the Middle East peace process, begun last year by the Obama administration.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that Washington is to “re-evaluate” its approach to decide whether it’s worth pursuing. The Palestinian action was in response to Israel’s delay in releasing the prisoners and Israel’s cancellation reacts to that application. This allows the two sides to accuse each other of jettisoning talks. If Kerry is finally tired by his shuttle diplomacy, it could arguably be because he finally grasped the cyclical nature of the Israeli and Palestinian inability to agree, which is the five-decade-old story of the peace process.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama had accused the Bush administration of neglecting the peace process. But his own policy, under former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, steered clear of every US president’s temptation to solve what his predecessors couldn’t. Obama’s second term, at Kerry’s insistence, saw the focus shift back to the issue, against the advice that developments elsewhere, as in the Asia-Pacific and currently Ukraine, require more attention. Most importantly, the Middle East is still being fundamentally changed in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. The rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, anarchy in Libya, the Assad regime’s brutality and Syria’s radical opposition, the Shia-Sunni rivalry and managing a nuclear Iran, not only eclipsed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Israelis and Palestinians had never lived so peacefully, in relative terms, with each other.

As Kerry’s project reaches a dead end, the pressure is building on him to own the failure. But as neither party has called off the talks, Kerry’s team will persist for a while. That’s unlikely to spare Kerry the question: what was the price paid by the US and the world while the secretary of state wasted his time?

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First published on: 05-04-2014 at 00:03 IST
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