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March 24, 2017

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Israel's position still depends on US influence

"You have heard of the patience of Job," wrote Jesus' disciple James, underscoring the importance of patience as well as faith in handling severe reversals and frustrations (James 5:11). Religious references readily come to mind in considering the seemingly endless conflicts in the Mideast.

Secretary of State John Kerry courageously has tackled head-on the engrained hostility separating Israelis and Palestinians. His initiative is comparable to predecessors James Baker and Henry Kissinger, both great diplomats. The United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem masks this dedicated long-term U.S. effort for reconciliation between bitter enemies.

Baker and Kissinger worked in the aftermath of war, respectively the 1991 Gulf War and the 1973 Arab-Israel War. Neither achieved comprehensive peace, but both eased tensions. In the intensive and explosive context of the region, that counts as progress.

Kerry is similar to these men - enormously energetic, comfortable with details of diplomacy, disciplined and focused, aware breakthroughs are usually a result of private negotiation. Like these earlier secretaries, Kerry has demonstrated good management and selected skillful deputies, including Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Indyk's sympathy for Israel is a plus in seeking realistic accommodation.

While serving as a catalyst in negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians is fundamental to success, the wider regional context is essential for progress. The U.S. has considerable continuing leverage.

First, Israel is more dependent than ever on American good will as well as aid. Our alliance is based on powerful cultural and historical roots. The growth of Islamic extremism underscores the importance of U.S. ties. Iran's interest in nuclear capabilities remains ominous, and should indirectly encourage even the hardline Israel government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek more stability in the immediate neighborhood.

Second, in the past important progress in the Middle East has occurred despite serious disagreements between Israel and the U.S. President Jimmy Carter's enormous determination and discipline achieved the historic 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. Though occasionally frayed, the agreement has held.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains the most serious and potentially destructive of the crises in the region. President Dwight Eisenhower used economic leverage and astute diplomacy decisively to end a secretly planned old-style colonial military effort by Britain, France and Israel to recapture the Suez Canal, which had been seized by Egypt's new nationalist regime. As usual, Ike's instincts were on target, and American-Israeli relations eventually gained in consequence.

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