“Peace is in the common interest of everybody in this region,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with his Jordanian counterpart, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “And as many ministers said to me today in the meeting that we had – many of them – they said that the core issue of instability in this region and in many other parts of the world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“The only way to resolve that is through direct negotiations, and the only ones who can make that happen are not President Obama, John Kerry, Nasser Judeh, but it is the parties themselves,” he added. “They have to make that decision.”
Kerry described the Arab-Israeli conflict as “one of the most difficult challenges on the face of the planet” and asserted that “it is more and more true today than ever before that the time to resolve it is narrowing.”
On his sixth visit to the Israel-Jordan-Palestinian Authority (P.A.) region since March, Kerry did also discuss Egypt and “our continuing concerns with Syria,” but the main aim of this trip to Amman was to report back on his mission to push Israeli-P.A. negotiations ahead.
The high priority he has accorded the issue even as other parts of the region are experiencing upheaval and bloodshed is in keeping with the long-held assertion in some quarters that the Palestinian issue is central to stability in the Middle East.
Those promoting what has been called “the theory of Palestinian centrality” include Western academics and policymakers. Arab governments, especially those unpopular at home, have pushed it for decades, as do many jihadist groups in their recruiting rhetoric.
When popular protests erupted in Arab countries in early 2011 some commentators argued that “Palestinian centrality” had yet again been discredited, noting that those taking to the streets were almost entirely silent on the Palestinian issue.
But despite the turmoil within their own ranks the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have continued to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian question, especially at United Nations forums.
Meanwhile more people have been killed in Syria over the past 28 months than in more than six decades of conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians.
Last April an Arab League delegation during a visit to Washington announced what amounted to a relaunch, in slightly amended form, of the “Arab Peace Initiative,” a plan first proposed by the Saudis in 2002 but rejected by Israel. Kerry visited Amman to meet with an Arab League committee focusing on the initiative.
Whereas the original 2002 plan offered Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israel relinquishing all the territory it seized during the 1967 Six Day War, the Arab group said during the April visit they were now open to “minor” land swaps in the setting of future Israeli-Palestinian borders.
The shift was touted as significant – Kerry called it “a very important announcement” – but the plan still leaves in place one of Israel’s key original objections: A call for a “just solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees, allowing those wanting to return to areas they or their forebears left to do so, and others to be compensated.
The U.N. today counts more than five million people defined as “Palestinian refugees” in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Israel has a total population of 7.7 million.
In Jordan Wednesday Kerry again voiced support for the Arab Peace Initiative, saying it had “never received the full attention and focus that it should have.”
“Israel needs to look hard at this initiative, which promises Israel peace with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations, a total of 57 nations that are standing and waiting for the possibility of making peace with Israel,” he said.
Kerry was referring in this comment to the 57 members of the OIC, a bloc including the Arab states but also mostly Muslim-majority states on four continents. Although the OIC has endorsed the Arab peace initiative it has not explicitly agreed that all of its members will recognize Israel even if the plan is carried out.
More than 20 OIC members, mostly in Africa and Central Asia but also including Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, already have diplomatic relations with Israel. Others, like Iran, have expressed doubt that they ever will recognize the Jewish state.