John Kerry's Legacy May Rest on Middle East Talks

Experts say public must take wait-and-see approach to peace talks.


Many critics took aim at Secretary of State John Kerry when he began his work in Foggy Bottom by making repeated visits to the Middle East, hoping to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the long-cold negotiating table. But Friday, Kerry was able to herald the news that an agreement had been made on resuming talks aimed at finding a resolution to the long-standing conflict.

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"This is a significant and welcome step forward," he said while in Amman, Jordan.

Kerry declined to share the parameters of the agreement, but said negotiators would be joining him in Washington soon if "everything goes as expected."

Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, says Kerry's dedication to the issue has the potential to set up the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman as a hero – or a zero.

"People will say he's a genius if in fact he gets something out of this and I think people will criticize him if it comes up short," he says, noting Kerry has visited the region five times since he took over the top diplomatic post. "Both sides want to show that they are willing to work with him...The question is, will you get anything out of the talks, and that I think people are much more skeptical about."

Singh says Kerry has committed to the long-standing issue of Mideast peace despite newer and arguably more pressing issues in the region, making him an easy target for disparagement.

"Of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important, but it's not maybe a priority right now when you look at what's happening in Syria and Egypt and Iran," Singh says. "That will end up being an obstacle to the talks themselves, as other things going on in the region will steal the attention not only of the United States but also of Israel and the Palestinians."

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But other regional experts praised Kerry for making the effort.

"No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States – even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities," wrote Shibley Telhami, senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Foreign Policy Magazine. "The administration thus cannot be faulted for active diplomacy; no time is a good time, and soon enough there may not be any time left. But it will be justifiably faulted if, as in Obama's first term, it tries only half-heartedly and fails."

Singh says there's no doubt efforts to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians during President Barack Obama's first term, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were lacking.

"Obviously the Obama administration's initial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian talks was ham-handed," he says. "They made some big errors initially by focusing on a settlement freeze, getting into these very public arguments with the Israelis, and it really soured the mood not just with the Israelis but with the Palestinians as well, who felt hung out to dry when suddenly the United States stepped back."

David Rothkopf, CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group which publishes Foreign Policy Magazine, said Kerry should ignore the "cheap-shot criticisms of District of Columbia denizens" and carry on with his efforts.

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"Right now, the U.S. looks pretty weak in the Middle East. Kerry's effort at least shows a sign of a pulse and a little vision for U.S. foreign policy in the region," he wrote in an opinion piece for "Even if little else comes out of it that alone makes it a risk worth taking."

Singh says the keys to real progress will be whether or not the talks actually begin, if they can endure if outside events threaten to derail them and if there are empowered negotiators in the room.

"The more serious the talks are, the less you will hear about them and the fewer details you will get," he says. "If they are serious the more they will want to avoid public commentary and debate."