During nine days of on-the-road diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s been lambasted by Israel’s prime minister over possible concessions to Iran and lectured by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister about getting tougher with Syria.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators got into a shouting match during peace talks Kerry initiated, and he hurried to join negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear program that deadlocked short of an agreement.
Yet Kerry showed little evidence of being troubled. To the contrary, he took every opportunity to say that things were looking up.
``You need optimism in a place that has a lot of pessimism,’’ he told Israeli television Nov. 7. “It’s good to have optimism. The schedule may slip a little here and there, but if you don’t have targets, if you don’t set ambitious targets, you don’t get anything done.”
The coming months will show if he is right. Kerry came away from three days of Iran negotiations without wrapping up the first steps toward a comprehensive deal, and he is pushing for a Syria peace conference next month that may not happen. He faces a self-imposed April “target” for efforts to reach a final-status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Each is a major challenge, and successes or failures may set the course of events in the region for years --- as well as determine Kerry’s legacy as his nation’s top diplomat. He flies home from Abu Dhabi today to face combative members of Congress siding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism that U.S. offers to ease some sanctions on Iran would be a “mistake of historic proportions.”
The intensity of Kerry’s involvement in the Mideast runs counter to commentary suggesting that the U.S. is retreating from the region after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and President Barack Obama’s decision to drop plans to strike Syria for its chemical weapons use. Kerry, 69, is the one-man counterweight to the Asia pivot championed by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and the president.
“Whatever the imagery that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, it’s pretty clear that Kerry is not,” said Dennis Ross, a former Mideast envoy who was Obama’s adviser on Iran.
That’s evident from Kerry’s travel schedule. He is wrapping up his eighth visit to the region since taking office in February -- twice the number of trips during Clinton’s first year -- and his sixth to Israel. He’s flown during this swing to five Mideast nations -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates -- and taken a motorcade from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry held talks with Netanyahu and Abbas on the peace process -- though he’s been unable to bring them together in the same room -- and signaled that the U.S. may offer its own ideas for a peace plan early next year if the two sides fail to make progress. He is “unquestionably committed” to the effort, said Ross.
“We’ve had very few secretaries of state who, I think, have the combination of energy and tenacity that he combines,” said Ross. “What he throws himself into, he doesn’t give up on.”
As shown by his sudden detour to Geneva late last week for Iran negotiations, Kerry’s travels have an element of spontaneity, which is unusual on trips that require intricate planning of security measures, motorcade routes and synchronizing schedules with foreign leaders. Aboard his specially configured Boeing Co. 757-200 jet, Kerry abandons business attire in favor of jeans and often a blue sweatshirt from Yale University, his undergraduate alma mater.
The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shifts plans as he sees potential opportunities. He lingered in Kabul, Afghanistan, hours longer than planned last month to conclude a security deal with President Hamid Karzai, missing his next stop, an appointment to discuss Syria and Iran with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. His decision to go to Geneva meant dropping stops in Algeria and Morocco, key counterterrorism allies in North Africa.
In public, Kerry seems to be encountering a rough time. The Saudis have expressed unhappiness that Obama failed to bomb Syria and is moving toward a deal that would reduce the chances of American military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Before heading to the Saudi capital of Riyadh from Cairo, Kerry said there were differences between the allies, including over Obama’s decision to accept a chemical-weapons disarmament plan for Syria.
‘’There are some countries in the region that wanted the United States to do one thing with respect to Syria, and we have done something else,’’ he said.
Kerry’s planned 30-minute meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah extended to two hours as he explained U.S. choices and sought to persuade the 89-year-old monarch that Obama’s Syria and Iran policies weren’t a retreat from U.S. commitments, including defense ties, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.
Similarly, he faced questions from leaders in Egypt, where the U.S. has suspended military aid after the armed forces toppled the elected Islamist government, and criticisms from Israel’s Netanyahu, who portrayed the U.S. administration as showing weakness in negotiating to curtail what Israel says are Iran’s efforts to make nuclear weapons.
“What I see is a continuation of Saudi-Israeli-Egyptian-Gulf States concern that the U.S. can’t be relied upon any more to underwrite stability in the Middle East,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Kerry said the U.S. remains a major player in the Middle East and will continue to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Let me be crystal clear,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question in Cairo on Nov. 3. “The United States of America is deeply engaged in the Middle East peace process, and we are essential to the ability of that peace process to be able to be resolved.”
The U.S. “will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for the Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others,” he said. “We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them.”
In Geneva, Kerry said the U.S. retains the option of using force if Iran fails to curtail its nuclear program or cheats on an accord.
Rynhold said that after Obama’s “dithering” over military action against Syria, U.S. allies in the Mideast aren’t certain he would make “the difficult decision” if it came to that.
Netanyahu’s anger over Iran negotiations may derail Kerry’s chance of becoming the U.S. secretary of state who, after decades of effort by his predecessors, produces an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. During Kerry’s visit, the Israeli leader said his refusal to “compromise on Israel’s security and our vital interests” involving Iran extends to talks with the Palestinians. The U.S. doesn’t agree the two diplomatic tracks are linked, according to one of the U.S. officials.
Just because Obama “didn’t go ahead and launch missiles” against Syria, instead accepting a Russia-backed deal to eliminate its chemical weapons, “is not a reason to start doubting his resolve with respect to the region,” Kerry said on NBC’s ``Meet the Press’’ yesterday. “I think folks understand that, and will continue to work on the Middle East peace process.”
While Kerry had tried to avert a public clash with Netanyahu through lengthy private talks, the secretary said in his TV interview that “it’s clear” the Israeli prime minister “has a different point of view about exactly how to approach the question of Iran.” Kerry said Israel would be better protected under the deal that is being negotiated, which is intended to freeze and then cut back Iran’s nuclear program to ensure it can’t make nuclear weapons.
“It seems to me that Israel is far safer if you make certain that Iran can’t continue the program,” Kerry said.
Kerry decided to drop stops in Algeria and Morocco to be in Washington when Congress returns after today’s Veteran’s Day holiday so he can brief leaders and counter critics, including Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who portray U.S. offers to Iran as naive and unwise.
‘’I don’t think we’re stupid,’’ Kerry said yesterday. “We have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we were acting in the interests of our country and of the globe and, particularly, of our allies like Israel and the Gulf states and others in the region.”
On a wet, overcast day, there was a rainbow above the airport tarmac as Kerry boarded his plane yesterday for a six-hour flight to the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi to have dinner -- and hold more talks on Syria and Iran -- with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan before heading home.