Chaos in Middle East Grows as the U.S. Focuses on Israel

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WASHINGTON -- In Damascus, the Syrian government's forces are digging in against rebels in a bloody civil war that is swiftly approaching the grim milestone of 100,000 dead. In Cairo, an angry tide of protesters again threatens an Egyptian president.

At the same time, in tranquil Tel Aviv, Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a busy round of shuttle diplomacy, laboring to revive a three-decade-old attempt at peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He insisted on Sunday that he had made "real progress."

The new secretary of state's exertions -- reminiscent of predecessors like Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III -- have been met with the usual mix of hope and skepticism. But 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.

"The moment for this kind of diplomacy has passed," said Robert Blecher, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group. "He's working with actors who have acted in this movie before, and the script is built around the same elements. But the theater is new; the region is a completely different place today."

Administration officials no longer argue, as they did early in President Obama's first term, that ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state is the key to improving the standing of the United States in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now just one headache among a multitude.

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. The most recent trip involved nearly 20 hours of talks, stretching almost until dawn, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Former administration officials defend that conviction. Mr. Kerry's focus, they say, makes sense precisely because of the chaos elsewhere. With little leverage over Egypt and deep reluctance about intervening in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one place that the United States can still exert influence, and perhaps even produce a breakthrough.

"You don't have instability between the Israelis and Palestinians right now," said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East. "But if you don't act, there's a risk that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, leaving a vacuum. And if we know one thing about vacuums in the Middle East, they are never filled with good things."

Resuscitating the peace process, he said, is also vital to Jordan, which is reeling from the wave of refugees from Syria and can ill afford a new wave of Palestinian unrest in the neighboring West Bank.

What is less clear is whether the Arab upheaval has made a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinian any less elusive. Some analysts say the instability has made Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas eager to resolve their dispute, while others assert that both can use it as a pretext to avoid making the hard choices needed for a deal.

"I think both sides look at what's happening in the region right now and think, 'Maybe we're better off putting ourselves in a more stable situation with each other,' " said a senior Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his involvement in what Mr. Kerry has demanded be confidential discussions.

But several Israeli analysts said the reverse was true: the unrest has made Israel more concerned about security than about taking risks to advance the peace process. Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said most Israelis would rank Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan above the Palestinians in terms of "importance and urgency."

A day after Mr. Kerry concluded 13 hours of talks with Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli newspapers were dominated by images of the vast protests in Egypt. Five of the six major daily papers did not even carry front-page reports on Mr. Kerry's diplomacy.

"Were you to ask people in the leadership of both Israel and the Palestinians whether they thought resolving the conflict now, given the developments in the region, is feasible, most people would tell you it's quite unlikely," Mr. Meridor said.

As for the Palestinians, some analysts said Mr. Abbas felt as vulnerable as ever about protracted negotiations with Mr. Netanyahu, particularly without preconditions. A preoccupied Egypt would leave the Palestinian Authority without crucial political support.

"Abbas would say that to reach a deal, you need Arab support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt," said Ghaith al-Omari, the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. "With all the chaos, you might not get that."

Mr. Kerry has made efforts to enlist the Arab world in his campaign. He brought Arab foreign ministers to Washington in April and won their support for an update to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Before his latest round of shuttle diplomacy with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, Mr. Kerry huddled with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Analysts say he has avoided the trap of pushing for direct talks without laying the necessary groundwork.

"There is a reason Kerry has gotten as far as he has," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

While resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the magic bullet for the region that some once thought, it still resonates widely, whether among the crowds in Tahrir Square or the militants of Hezbollah, who cite Israel in rallying around President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

A recent survey of 20,000 people in 14 countries by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha found that Israel and the United States were seen as the top security threats.

Mr. Kerry has made it clear that he will not give up his peacemaking quest. But analysts said that the gravity of the crisis in Egypt would force him and other senior officials to shift their attention to Cairo, where American policy, some say, has failed to keep up with events.

"It's good that Kerry is focusing on the peace process," said Brian Katulis, an expert on Egypt at the Center for American Progress, "but the biggest thing they haven't done is pursue a strategic review on Egypt."

Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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