Kerry seeks Mideast answers amid deteriorating conditions

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is confronted with two crises for which it has few, if any, viable options – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian civil war. The administration has ultimate goals for each crisis but no clear path to achieve them, and Secretary of State John Kerry is jetting off to Europe and the Middle East to seek answers.

With only a broad outline of the desired results, Kerry will be listening as much as talking as he navigates attempts to restore relative calm in Israel and the Palestinian territories amid violence and spiraling tensions and revive efforts for a political transition in Syria that could end the increasingly complex war.

Kerry embarked on his latest round of high-stakes diplomacy on Wednesday when he left for Berlin, where he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, and then Vienna, where he will see the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia about Syria on Friday. He then plans to visit Amman, where he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. A stop in Saudi Arabia is also envisioned.

Complicating his already delicate tasks, the situations in both hotspots took unexpected and potentially dangerous turns late Tuesday and Wednesday.

Netanyahu blamed a former Palestinian leader for inspiring Hitler’s Holocaust. Those comments, coupled with new Palestinian stabbing attacks on Israelis, threaten to further inflame the combustible atmosphere.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow, suggesting that Putin’s support for Assad’s government will not wane.

Although State Department spokesman John Kirby wouldn’t criticize Netanyahu for incitement, he said of the Holocaust comments, “The scholarly evidence does not support that position.” He took a similar constrained approach on Assad’s trip to Russia, saying it was not surprising given the two countries’ expanding military relationship.

U.S. officials have yet to detail any American plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian unrest that erupted a month ago over Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site. During that time, 10 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian assailants, mostly in knife attacks, while 47 Palestinians – including 26 labeled by Israel as attackers – have been killed by Israeli fire. The remainder died in clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters. In addition, an Israeli mob killed an Eritrean migrant after mistaking him for an Arab attacker.

The site in question is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and home to the biblical Temples. For Muslims, it is the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam and a key national symbol for the Palestinians. The site, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, is a frequent flashpoint of violence.

The Palestinians accuse Israel of trying to change the longstanding “status quo” at the site, which allows Jews to visit but not to pray. They point to a growing number of Jewish visitors who seek an expanded Jewish presence and prayer rights at the site.

Netanyahu says there are no plans to change the status quo, and that the Palestinian allegations are slanderous incitement. He says the hostile rhetoric, and incendiary videos making the rounds on social media, are fueling the violence. Then he said the mufti of Jerusalem during World War II, noted Nazi sympathizer Haj Amin al-Husseini, told Adolf Hitler to exterminate the Jews.

Into this volatile mix, Kerry is now wading.

He has said he wants “clarity” about the status quo about the site, but officials say he does not believe it needs to be codified. Nor does he support a French proposal for an international presence on the site.

The State Department has endorsed the Jewish state’s position on the status quo, saying it was being maintained and that all Kerry “wants to do is make sure that that maintenance continues.”

Efforts are similarly vague in Syria, where the U.S. has failed repeatedly to convince Russia to stop supporting the Assad government.

The administration has held to its position that Assad must go but could be part of a political transition.

Despite all the U.S. talk about political transition, Syrian peace talks have ceased. The U.S. is trying to forge a strategy with Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – and potentially even Iran – to halt the fighting between Assad’s military and moderate opposition forces, allowing all sides to concentrate on defeating the Islamic State group.

But even as Moscow discusses the possibility, it is pressing ahead with airstrikes around the country that the U.S. and others say are predominantly targeting U.S.-backed rebels and not Islamic State militants or other extremist groups. And Russia has never publicly said that Assad should leave power.