WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his fourth visit to the Middle East in two months, is chasing the brass ring of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Kerry's single most important foreign policy goal is solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that dates to the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt.
The issue, says Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, is whether "we are going to be able to get the Palestinians back to the table."
All wish it were that simple.
The issue is whether Israel is willing to give up many of its settlements in the West Bank and allow the emergence of an independent Palestinian state on its eastern border that would be governed -- no, ruled -- by the hard-line Palestinian Hamas faction that runs Gaza.
Fatah moderates keep losing ground to Hamas all over the West Bank.
A Hamas regime in the West Bank would have the Mediterranean as its next border, or the gradual erosion of the Jewish state.
So rather than give up the West Bank to a Palestinian state, Israel is making sure it becomes ungovernable by Palestinians.
A few days before Kerry's most recent visit to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu violated his government's de facto moratorium on the expansion of Jewish settlements. He legalized retroactively four housing settlements already built without official authorization.
More than half a million Israelis live in 120 illegal settlements, interconnected by a modern road network banned to Palestinians.
Working against Kerry's self-imposed deadline of the end of U.S. President Barack Obama's second term is the unfolding geopolitical drama in the rest of the Middle East.
Sharing a border with Israel on the Golan Heights is Syria, now entering its third year of civil war with the death toll climbing rapidly to 90,000. Israel has already bombed a shipment of Iranian arms in Syria as it was making its way to Lebanon's Hezbollah, on Israel's northern border.
One-third of Syria's 22 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 1.4 million have fled their homes.
Fueling all manner of geopolitical speculation, a Russian naval armada of 11 warships, from the Pacific, Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets converged in the eastern Mediterranean. It was Moscow's first global naval deployment since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
Moscow has long maintained a small naval facility at Tartus in Syria. And its naval deployment is probably designed as a warning not to interfere with Russian arms shipments to Syria and to strengthen Russia's hand for a Syrian peace conference endorsed by both Moscow and Washington.
Following the U.S. fiasco in Iraq, where al-Qaida guerrillas are based for operations against the Syrian regime, and the grim outlook in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is anxious to stay out of Syria.
Sequestration and the shrinking U.S. defense budget drives are a factor. But equally important, Obama, Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are as one not to get involved on the same side as al-Qaida against the Assad regime.
There was no such restraint on Qatar, now the world's wealthiest nation with a per capita income of $88,000 for a native population of 300,000. There are more than 1 million foreign workers in the Qatari peninsula, along with a regional U.S. command and the longest airstrip in the Gulf region.
On Israel's eastern border sits the only Arab country that is friendly and with normal diplomatic relations, but Jordan, a small desert nation of 6 million, is already overwhelmed by some 530,000 Syrian refugees.
Jordanians blame Syrians for a proliferation of brothels. In a hastily built U.N. refugee camp for 100,000, food vouchers donated by the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries are the envy of nearby poor Jordanians.
Some better-educated Syrians have already taken jobs from Jordanians. With gulf food packages, they opened stores, undercutting local prices.
Even in normal times, Jordan survives only with Saudi and U.S. aid. The majority of the population is Palestinian and the pro-Western monarchy under King Abdullah II is increasingly unpopular. He works hard to mask his English-accented Arabic.
Palestinian-born Queen Rania, criticized for expensive shopping trips to Paris and London, has recast her image with more modest attire.
Israel's southern border is no cause for reassurance about the future either. Al-Qaida wannabes are roaming around the Sinai and Egypt is under the Muslim Brotherhood's ultra-religious Islamist management.
Egypt's peace treaty and diplomatic relations with Israel are shaky, but holding.
Egypt's economy is shrinking fast and international lending institutions are making loans contingent on major reforms. Further belt-tightening would trigger major unrest, which in the new fundamentalist Egypt are invariably bloody.
Deteriorating conditions in all Israel's Arab neighbors have convinced Netanyahu this is no time to be negotiating the end of its occupation of the West Bank.