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John Kerry’s Clinic in Diplomatic Futility

Secretary of State John Kerry is on tour this week, emulating the sort of frequent-flyer diplomacy that his predecessor Hillary Clinton prided herself on. With the help of an adoring press, Clinton managed to create the impression that roaming the globe was in itself an indication of success even if she didn’t accomplish much, if anything, by doing so. However, Kerry’s wanderings will be even more difficult to portray as a public relations bonanza. That’s because his stubborn refusal to face facts about intractable conflicts is leading him into the sort of fool’s errands that the more cautious Clinton avoided. Case in point is his visit to Turkey this past weekend that was followed by a trip to Israel, where he will engage in some shuttle diplomacy between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians.

Kerry’s stay in Ankara was represented as a follow-up to President Obama’s supposedly brilliant triumph in brokering what is still widely referred to as a “rapprochement” between Israel and Turkey. But the details of the talks he held with the Turkish foreign minister gave the lie to the administration’s boasts about the benefits of its persuading the Israeli prime minister to apologize to his Turkish counterpart, since the Turks are making it clear they have no intention of abiding by any agreement to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, the idea of shuttling between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Abbas, when the latter has already demonstrated his lack of interest in the sort of talks without precondition that Obama said was the only path to peace, is, at best, a waste of the secretary’s time. That Kerry is inaugurating his tenure at the State Department by conducting two visits that give him no opportunity to succeed is bad enough. But it does more than illustrate how out of touch he is with reality. By diving into problems that he can’t fix but can make worse by raising expectations of American pressure on Israel, this will not only bode ill for his tenure in his new post but also offers him opportunities to create mischief where none need have been found.

In Turkey, the secretary was confronted by a Turkish determination to use the much-celebrated conversation between Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdoğan as an opening to try and extract more concessions from Israel about their Hamas ally rather than a way out of a nasty quarrel. Kerry should not have gone to Ankara without a prior Turkish commitment to return their ambassador to Israel, as they had agreed during the call with President Obama. By leaving Turkey without anything near a promise to do so expeditiously, Kerry and the United States were humiliated. Having done so, it is difficult to imagine why the Turks will ever make good on their promises since the end of the embargo on the rogue Islamist state in Gaza is not something that either the U.S. or Israel can or should agree to even if it would make Erdoğan happy.

As far as the shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah, any decision to engage in such a public exercise should have been predicated by foreknowledge that the Palestinians were willing to end a boycott of negotiations with Israel that has lasted for more than four years. But even after the president publicly chided Abbas that preconditions about settlements should be no obstacle to talks, the PA has followed up by coming up with a different reason for not talking. Now they are saying that Israel must commit to using the 1967 lines as the starting point for new talks on borders.

While one can’t completely blame them for resurrecting a precondition that Obama himself memorably called for in his May 2012 ambush of Netanyahu in Washington, doing so is the equivalent of a neon sign saying the Palestinians don’t want to talk and wouldn’t agree to a peace deal even if they did.

Kerry has often been accused of being too close to the Europeans in his worldview, but the problem here is not his mindset so much as competence. No secretary of state ought to place themselves in these kinds of foolish positions. Say what you will about Clinton, but it is hard to think of any series of meetings that were as futile as those conducted this week by Kerry. That Kerry has done so on his maiden voyage to the region shows that the man who openly campaigned for the position of chief U.S. diplomat is only good for conducting a clinic in how not to represent his country.