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31.10.2014
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Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi

Diplomatic architect or contractor?

Pundits and political analysts are convinced that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace efforts are a one-man act. Accordingly, an indefatigable Kerry has succumbed to an irresistible urge to pursue his own peace agenda. The White House's priorities are of no concern to him.

Some could draw parallels to former U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, who, in 1969, presented his own peace plan to secure a deal between Israel, Egypt, and a would-be Jordanian-Palestinian entity. This plan was not necessarily congruent with the Nixon White House's over-arching world view. In the same vein, Kerry's actions on the Israeli-Palestinian front should not automatically be interpreted as a manifestation of U.S. President Barack Obama's goals and priorities.

But, in fact, Kerry is not freelancing, and the White House is not trying to keep him at arm's length. Obama wants his presidency to have a lasting impact on American society and the economy, and as such, he has been running a tight ship. A closer look at ongoing negotiations reveals Kerry as a loyal contractor working on behalf of a president whose priority is to leave behind an enduring legacy.

Obama's centralized grip on power is discussed in a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, excerpts of which were published last week. In the book, Obama is portrayed as a micromanager on defense and national security issues. According to Gates, Obama does not allow his subordinates much leeway and does not let them chart their own path or stray even a bit from administration strategies. Gates' account, as well as his assertion that Obama is determined to pull out from conflict zones and focus on domestic issues, helps solve the Obama riddle.

As far as the president is concerned, the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (or, at the very least, keeping a tight lid on hostilities) would be a crucial component -- alongside a permanent agreement with Iran -- of the administration's new disengagement policy. It would help diminish the threat of being sucked into future Palestinian-Israeli flare-ups or other upheavals in the region.

In 2009, Obama convinced Israel to sign a 10-month settlement freeze so the U.S. could set in motion broad regional processes to facilitate an orderly withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq. Similarly, in 2013, having accepted the resounding failure of that policy, he resorted to leaving no stone unturned as he advanced toward his cherished goal.

This policy, which seems to resemble Milan Kundera's "Farewell Waltz," has Obama written all over it. It's not Kerry's. But there is a lingering question: Will it end the stagnation in this complex and charged atmosphere, in a region that has experienced the turbulence of the so-called "Arab Spring," which nipped Obama's initial peace-making efforts in the bud?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just a member of the administration's technical support team. Throughout her four-year tenure, her job was to pitch Obama's diplomatic maneuvers. Likewise, Kerry is supposed to take Obama's vision of disengagement and translate it into an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that would help make this policy a reality.

Obama has let Kerry take center stage and work around the clock. However, this is not due to a lack of coordination between the two. Obama hopes his hands-off approach will minimize the damage the White House might sustain if the latest peace drive run aground, as it did earlier in his presidency. For now, however, we will have to wait and see if Obama manages to realize his vision, or if the White House chooses throws its chief diplomat under the bus to preserve its own image and prestige.

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