With so much of the Middle East still convulsing from the effects of the Arab Spring, Mr. Kerry’s efforts raise questions about the Obama administration’s priorities at a time of renewed regional unrest.The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once a stark symbol and source of grievance in the Arab world, is now almost a sideshow in a Middle East consumed by sectarian strife, economic misery and, in Egypt, a democratically elected leader fighting for legitimacy with many of his people. […]And yet Mr. Kerry, backed by Mr. Obama, still believes that tackling the problem is worth the effort: five visits to the region in the last three months.
For Secretary Kerry, this is partly about turf. As Vali Nasr makes clear in his riveting new book, the Obama White House is a nest of control freaks, concentrating more power in the hands of the Presidents’ personal staff than any other president since Richard Nixon. For Secretary Kerry, this may be one of the few issues where he is free to try to make a mark. Well aware that this could be his last big job in public service, he may just be doing what he can on one of the highest profile issues that he’s got a green light to move on.Another factor, as TAI editor Adam Garfinkle wrote in a brilliant post recently, is that President Obama and Secretary Kerry are simply having trouble “reposition[ing] their attention away from their respective obsessions with profoundly old business” like the aforementioned Arab-Israeli conflict, or arms control with Russia.More commendably, Secretary Kerry and the President understand that, regardless of Israeli or for that matter Palestinian priorities, a functioning peace process is a significant asset for American policy in the region. Having collapsed in the catastrophe of President Clinton’s poorly judged deadline diplomacy back in 2001, and having languished under two terms of President Bush and one of President Obama, the possibility of significant diplomatic engagement between Israelis and Palestinians is fading away. It makes some sense to support it—though we suspect that a less high profile effort might get more done.Also in Kerry’s defense, the Secretary may believe that the current moment offers a real opportunity for the United States. Israel is so worried on so many fronts—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Egypt—that promises of American support are more valuable now than they usually are. Kerry may hope that, precisely because so much of the region is in flames, Israelis will place a high enough value on good relations with their strongest ally that they will be a bit more forthcoming in their approach to the Palestinians.We don’t think the odds favor dramatic breakthroughs on the Palestinian question; regional uncertainty is likely to lead both the Israelis and the Palestinians to hunker down rather than to open up. We are concerned that uncertainty over US intentions, capacity and will is reducing rather than enhancing US influence as the regional crisis unfolds. We wish the Secretary well in his quest; it is honest and well intentioned, and any progress he makes will help Palestinians, Americans and Israelis alike.But for the future of Obama administration policy in the Middle East, the newfound critical perspective at the New York Times may have bigger consequences than anything Secretary Kerry does in the Holy Land. After four years of unsparing reportage on the Emperor’s beautiful new clothes and the incredibly clever tailors who made them, we are starting to hear a different note from the Fashion Police. More openly left wing voices are now clearly in opposition