Washington - It's way too early to get excited, but Secretary of State John Kerry has made solid beginning in his Middle East diplomacy.
Kerry has already visited three times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Israeli reports, he has said he is willing to devote the next two months to exploring the possibilities and learning the parties' positions before putting a more detailed plan of action on the table.
The fact that Kerry is speaking with both sides separately rather than working specifically to get them around the same table is positive. As conflict resolution expert Allen S. Weiner explained in an incisive New York Times Op Ed in February, "Direct talks between implacable foes, without active mediation, may be the worst possible way to try to settle the conflict. Facing one's adversary directly across the table heightens psychological barriers even to a mutually beneficial deal."
The second reason for cautious optimism surrounding Kerry's diplomacy is that we don't know much about what is going on. Experience has taught us that negotiating in public is a guaranteed recipe for failure since each side finds it necessary to play to its own base.
The third reason is that the little we do know all sounds eminently sensible. Media reports suggest one main thrust of Kerry's diplomacy so far is nudging the parties to offer confidence-building measures that would begin to dispel the deep suspicion that has grown between them over the past four years and to avoid provocative actions that would make the situation worse.
For Israel, this means refraining from announcing new settlements or major building projects in the West Bank. For the Palestinians, it means promising not to seek full state membership of more international organizations and especially not appealing to the International Criminal Court to take up the question of Israeli actions.
Tied to this is an effort by Kerry to regionalize the issue by reviving interest in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that proposed blanket Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from all territory occupied in 1967. Much has changed since 2002 and an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights is not on the cards now, especially while Syria is embroiled in civil war. But Kerry's main point in invoking the initiative seems to be that by involving the Arab states, he can bolster the momentum for peace.
"It suggests ... a way forward for the Arab world to make peace with Israel," Kerry said as he prepared to leave Israel. "As such, it remains a very important statement."
Parallel to this is a concerted push by the administration to improve economic conditions in the West Bank, where the economy has been sliding backward and public unrest and disorder has been growing. Kerry seems to realize that without stabilizing the economy, Palestinian grassroots support for peace will not be there.
Kerry is focusing on measures to break down red tape and other barriers to economic progress. He said changes would come soon, and said more details would be announced in the coming week after meetings in Washington with U.S. aid agencies and financial institutions.
There is in Kerry's measured words and actions a consciousness of all the mistakes that past administrations have made and a willingness to learn from them.
"This effort has been dogged by good intentions and failed efforts at one time or another for a lot of reasons," he said. "I think we all have had enough time to analyze those reasons and understand some of the lessons we need to learn trying to go forward now."
One of those mistakes, which this administration is not repeating, is to wait too long before launching major peace efforts. President Clinton left his major push almost to the end of his second term. President George W. Bush waited until his seventh year in office, by which time he was a lame duck. This administration has gotten right to work in its first year.
When President Obama left Israel at the end of last month's successful visit, there were still those who doubted whether the president was willing to invest his time and political capital in yet another effort to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kerry has now delivered a firm and unequivocal answer. "It's our intention and we are committed to this, every party, to continue our intensive discussions with belief that they are constructive and in good faith," Kerry said. "We intend to try to create the conditions for peace so that we can resume negotiations between the parties in a clear and precise, predetermined manner."