Congratulations to John Kerry on his taking office as secretary of state of the United States.

President Barack Obama could not have made a better choice than a man who was himself close to being in the Oval Office, a liberal democrat from Massachusetts with bipartisan support, a champion of human rights and democracy who understands all too well the might of the United States as leader of the free world, a true American and a cosmopolitan man who fathoms the changing world.

On the new secretary of state’s agenda are issues of great importance to America’s strategic national interests and its posture in the world – the critical relationships with Russia and China, with differences of political and economic interests, and a common desire for collective diplomacy; the proliferation of non-conventional weapons in Iran, North Korea and even with terrorist organizations in the Middle East is a very high priority, as is the related issue of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism by Tehran and al-Qaida and their allies in the Middle East and Africa.

Secretary of State Kerry faces a formidable challenge of dealing with a world in transformation:

• A world in which the military clout of the United States plays less of a role and in which the weak have become undeterred and lethal, such as Osama bin Laden, who from ancient caves, attacked the bastions of the modern free world on 9/11.

• A world in which pro-Western dictators are either out of office or mostly irrelevant due to the growing empowerment of the people by the information revolution. There is more democracy, on every continent, than ever before.

• A world in which citizens and societies are more interconnected and empowered, and are able to create new coalitions of common interests and values.

• A world with greater interdependence and still enormous inequalities.

• A world in which there is a global public opinion that is more on the side of the deprived than of the mighty.

In this changing world, it is not enough for the United States to rely solely on its military might, as we witnessed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor can it rely on shipping military hardware, or even economic aid, to pro-American dictators, as was the case with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. In the 21st century, American foreign policy needs to seek international legitimacy, with both individual citizens and societies. Its global interests are served best therefore by the creation of international coalitions and collective diplomacy, based on America’s clout as the leading economic power, with its unique intellectual capacities and democratic values.

Building bridges to potential partners today depends more on a combination of goodwill, shared interests and domestic legitimacies.

This is a world in need of an innovative American diplomacy, and it seems that John Kerry, under Obama, is the right person for the job.

And then comes the Middle East peace process. John Kerry will be told by Middle East veterans, advisers and friends in America and the region: “Hands off!” in so many ways, from “this is a recipe for failure;” and “do not become a frequent flyer on the useless Middle East shuttle;” to advice from Israelis: “There is no reliable Palestinian partner,” and from Arabs: “There is an Israeli partner only for settlement expansion.”

All this well-meaning advice will be shortsighted, selfish and wrong. It is up to the secretary of state to create an innovative American strategy for Middle Eastern peace and security.

Such a strategy has to recognize the centrality of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for several important reasons and in light of several premises: The people’s voice – a new American diplomatic strategy in the region must also take into consideration the change brought about by the Arab Spring.

Support for America will not come about solely from pro-Western leaders, as the Arab world has turned inward: The voice of the city squares is today more relevant than the proclamations from seats of government.

Tahrir is alive and kicking, as President Mohamed Morsi is experiencing. Arab public opinion, mainly that of the young who constitute more than 60 percent of Arabs, is critical, if not hostile, toward America, due to its perceived imposition of its political systems and values on the region, and its one-sided policy on Israel. The hearts and minds of young Arabs are moved in terms of their regional perceptions and by the fate of their Palestinian brethren under Israeli occupation.

On the other hand, they are also, on certain levels, open to America with an affinity toward the “American Dream,” as represented by Silicon Valley and Massachusetts academia.

In Israel, too, the vox populi has become more relevant, as proven by the Rothschild Boulevard protests and the protest vote against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in favor of parties which claim to represent the middle class. For war, or peace, Israeli leaders will have to listen more than before to the pulse of their constituencies. Israelis want a better and more affordable life with greater professional and educational opportunities. This is not served by war and conflict.

Therefore, any American strategy in the region has to be built on a combination of American interests and regional legitimacy.

A Middle East coalition


The Middle East is wavering between fundamentalism and pragmatism. The Arab Spring revolutions were led chiefly by young activists without political affiliation, and to a large degree were later hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and similarly oriented Islamic parties, with pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalists and Sunni violent radicalism in the background.

America must work with the relative pragmatists in power, even among the Islamists, to create a coalition against fundamentalism, extremism and terror. Such a coalition of interests is central to the defeat of fundamentalist, violent forces, and its creation is to a large degree dependent on an American policy that is actively engaged in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israel the No. 1 ally

At the same time, America has to signal its full support for its No. 1 ally and friend in the region, the State of Israel. Israel’s real security needs cannot be compromised in a region that suffers from Islamic extremism and hateful rejection of the Jewish state.

The very maintenance of Israel as a Jewish democracy, given the demographic reality, depends on the realization of a two-state solution. The United States must favor a strong Israel, and a strong Israel is an Israel at peace with agreed, recognized and secure borders.

No status quo

Those who advocate a hands-off policy do not understand that the Middle East is at a critical crossroads.

A war scenario is definitely possible, given Iranian aspirations to arm and strengthen Hamas and Hezbollah; so is the possibility of a third Palestinian intifada, given the Palestinians’ despair of a political solution. These dangers can and must be confronted by a regional coalition united against the extremists and a viable peace process. A continuation of the status quo is, in fact, the only scenario which is not realistic. The reality is a choice between peace and war.

Global interests

America highly values its global posture, as it wants and needs to build bridges of interests to China, Russia, Japan and the EU. An America perceived as a strong player for peace and stability in the Middle East will be able to engage in global coalition building and collective diplomacy.

Motivated by these considerations, the new secretary of state should engage in an active Middle East peace policy, based on several principles and elements:

• Launching a comprehensive, ongoing public diplomacy campaign to engage in a dialogue with the young generation in the Middle East – the generation of change – including the use of new media tools and social media. In this dialogue the United States should explain what it stands for in terms of values and policies; it has to engage with what Middle Easterners claim is lacking – listening; and in parallel, activate educational programs offering the best that America has.

• At the policy level, John Kerry should listen to the Israeli and Arab leaders in the region, to their interests, hopes and grievances, but not to their creative manipulations as to how to maneuver the United States to their side or toward policies that will sustain the stalemate.

• America is in need of its own clear regional policy, one which reflects its strategic security interests, as well as the most basic interests of the parties. Therefore, within a reasonable period of time, the administration should develop its own policy platform or, in other words, turn the Obama speech of 2009 into the Obama Plan of 2013.

• Presidential involvement is necessary for any successful peace strategy, thus President Obama should invite Netanyahu and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), possibly with the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan, to Washington, to open direct, bilateral negotiations, and at some stage visit the region.

• During the negotiations period, Israel needs to refrain from settlement expansion (except building warranted by basic needs) and the Palestinian Authority has to engage in a pro-active anti-terror policy in cooperation with Israel. These policies must be motivated by Washington.

• There has to be a clear timeline for negotiations of all permanent-status issues, such as an 18-month period for negotiations, and an additional three-year period of implementation. The negotiations should take place in the region and periodically in Washington.

• All permanent-status issues will be on the table and negotiated, based on previous accords between the parties, and the Obama vision.

• In parallel to these talks, the administration should engage in a dialogue with Israel on its basic security needs, also given new developments resulting from the peace process, and from other developments in the region, to ensure all of Israel’s security needs and its qualitative and technological edge. With the permanent status, an American-Israeli defense pact should be considered.

• The administration must also engage in dialogue and cooperation with the Palestinian leadership on the basic nation-building needs, economic and institutional, of the future Palestinian state. With the permanent status, the parties will then consider a long-term economic agreement.

• A new component should be added to the permanent- status issues – the relationship and cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian societies in all relevant spheres of life, i.e., a people-to-people relationship, to make the peace process into an inclusive process of reconciliation and cooperation – a peace for the people.

Kerry, as an experienced leader, will develop his own peace initiatives for the region; what, however, is of critical importance is that he will have a peace plan and a modus operandi. It is important that he places the region on his travel plans early and therefore high on his list of priorities. When he comes here, he should be welcomed as a friend and a man of peace.

From the outset, he should make it clear that while he is indeed a friend, he represents the strategic interests of the United States, and will not tolerate, from foes or friends, any harm to them; that he is here both to listen and to express a forthright opinion on the necessary progress toward peace, and that he will also engage in a dialogue with the people of the region, as peace in the Middle East is, above all, their interest.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

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