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John Kerry's legacy at stake in Mideast peace talks

Former presidential nominee may finally have found his niche

By Jules Witcover

1:36 PM EDT, August 5, 2013

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Secretary of State John Kerry still has a long way to go in his intensive quest for Palestinian-Israeli peace. But his diligent and persuasive pursuit of it suggests that his uneven career search for a legacy of his own may finally have found its proper track.

The decorated Vietnam War veteran who first won prominence as a vocal critic of that war went on to be a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and in 2004 the Democratic presidential nominee. But he was denied the presidency in a brutal political smearing of that honored service as a Navy swift boat commander.

Mr. Kerry returned to the Senate after that painful rejection and succeeded Joe Biden as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the latter was elected vice president. He acquired his present position only after President Obama's first choice, Susan Rice (now his national security adviser), was obliged to withdraw in the flames of the Benghazi consulate terrorist row.

After what some might have considered an indignity, Mr. Kerry assumed charge of the State Department from one of its most popular recent secretaries, Hillary Clinton. He moved quickly to assure his staff in Foggy Bottom and the rest of the diplomatic corps that he fully embraced their mission as the executive branch's chief peace-seeking arm.

He did so most visibly in personal shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East, recently visiting the region six times in the last four months for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other key officials and diplomats.

Achievement of the long-sought two-state solution may be beyond Mr. Kerry's talents of persuasion. But his success in bringing the two sides to an intended long negotiation with possible agreed-upon land swaps is a step beyond what Hillary Clinton was able to bring about in her four years in the job.

In the process, Mr. Kerry has demonstrated a flexibility and personal empathy that contrasts with his reputation as a somewhat aloof and even detached wealthy Bostonian given to elitist ways and airs. When he was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, his opponents made hay of photos his windsurfing during that losing campaign.

Even more recently, word that he had spent some time on his family yacht amid the latest outbreak of protests and violence in Egypt, first categorically denied by the State Department, was followed rather sheepishly with a retraction. As the Boston Globe reported, Mr. Kerry had taken a grandson on an hour's sail off Nantucket, and a department spokesman said the secretary had made phone calls from the island to leaders in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel in the course of the day.

In 2004, Mr. Kerry struggled through his presidential campaign to overcome gaffes, including a muddled statement that he was for financing the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq "before I was against it." Today, he seems to have found a more personal comfort zone and surer footing in the job of America's chief diplomat.

At the same time, because of his deep personal involvement in seeking a breakthrough in the quest for separate and mutually recognized Palestinian and Israeli states, the goal inevitably now bears his sponsorship. As Colin Powell once famously warned President Bush in advance of the Iraq invasion, dubbing it the Pottery Barn rule: "If you break it, you own it."

But the reward to Mr. Kerry's legacy should he succeed makes his efforts well worth the risk. Nothing more effectively countered the shortcomings of the Jimmy Carter presidency than his personal and persistent engagement and bringing Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israeli's Menachem Begin together in the historic Camp David accords in 1979.

Most failed presidential nominees over the last half-century have failed to match such an achievement. Al Gore, the narrow loser in 2000, turned to private-life accomplishments to soften the blow. Currently, 2012 loser Mitt Romney seems to be groping for a way to recover. John Kerry at the very least is reaching high, to his credit, going after one of diplomacy's most elusive recent peace-seeking objectives.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.