A Fool's Errand Worth Pursuing

There are many reasons the Mideast peace negotiations could fail--but no reason not to try

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, July 25, 2013.

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Hamas is broke. Its support for the Syrian rebels has damaged its ties to its two main patrons, Iran and Syria, who are facing their own problems (sanctions, insurgency). And the new Egyptian government has cracked down with ferocity on smuggling into Gaza. "Even [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak did not starve the Gaza Strip," a Hamas official told the Jerusalem Post. And remember, none of the thorny diplomatic problems--settlements, Jerusalem--involve Gaza. Were the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to come to an agreement, they could present it to the people on both sides and see if the public at large supports a deal even though some elements within their societies don't.

I know, i know. The thorny problems are really thorny and have derailed talks in the past. It is easy to see how negotiations could be undermined by the re-emergence of old disagreements, leaving both sides disappointed and bitter. That's why these negotiations should be conducted out of public view, with no briefings to the press, keeping expectations low.

Choosing to take on this issue might seem a fool's errand, but there are some practical reasons to pursue it. Unlike with the constant calls for the U.S. to magically stabilize Egypt and stop the slaughter in Syria, this is an issue on which Washington still has enormous leverage, and there is a clear path forward where Kerry's efforts could yield results. And success, even modest, would genuinely change the atmosphere in the region and in the wider Muslim world.

Since entering office, Kerry has taken on one of the classic duties of the Secretary of State--negotiator in chief. He has pursued whatever diplomatic openings he could find, with Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, with Russia over Syria and now with the Middle East peace process. These are by definition long shots and are thus politically risky. I give Kerry credit for using his political capital on them. And I wish him well. But if I had to bet ... well, I don't like losing money.

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