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One trip, two crises: Can Kerry keep the lid on Mideast peace talks and Iran?

John Kerry faces two formidable challenges in his visit to the Mideast: keep frustrated Palestinians committed to peace talks, and reassure Israel’s Netanyahu that Obama isn’t going soft on Iran.

No one told Secretary of State John Kerry his job would be easy, but the two key missions of his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories Wednesday are particularly tough ones.

Secretary Kerry will seek to breathe some life into flagging Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and then try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Obama administration has no intention of going soft on Iran in the pursuit of a nuclear deal.

Hardly a slam-dunk in either case.

Kerry arrives in Israel Tuesday night. Just last week, rumors swirled that Palestinian negotiators, frustrated by recent Israeli settlement announcements, were on the verge of abandoning peace talks that got under way in August.

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An alarmed State Department sought clarifications from Palestinian officials, and senior US diplomats say they received assurances that the Palestinians “remain committed to the negotiations for the nine months agreed to” at the outset of the talks.

But with no breakthroughs reported in the two months of talks that have already passed, Kerry will be hard-pressed to point to progress when he meets in Bethlehem with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yet as difficult as that meeting may be, it could pale in comparison to Kerry’s sit-down with Mr. Netanyahu and the task before him there: to reassure the Israeli leader of President Obama’s resolve to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, long suspicious of Obama administration intentions toward Iran, was already set on edge when Mr. Obama marked a thaw in US-Iran relations by holding a brief phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September – even as Netanyahu warned against trusting “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

But several things the Israeli leader has heard recently coming from senior administration officials – including Kerry – have sharpened Netanyahu’s concerns, some Israeli experts say.

First, from Kerry. In a speech last week to the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington organization that works to stop nuclear proliferation, the top US diplomat said administration policy aims to test “whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful [nuclear] program.” He went on to say the US would not “succumb to those fear tactics” that suggest the US should not engage with Iran to test whether or not a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff can be reached.

A second round of talks between Iran and six world powers – the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – is set to get under way in Geneva Thursday.

Those comments from Kerry worry Netanyahu, Israeli experts say, because they suggest two things. First, that the administration believes that perhaps Iran really does only want a peaceful nuclear program – Netanyahu believes there can be no doubting Iran’s intentions based on the trajectory of its nuclear program.

And second, that the administration sees as “fear tactics” any efforts to dissuade the US from accepting compromises with Iran before it definitively and verifiably gives up all the elements of its nuclear program that could lead to a bomb.

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And that leads to the second senior administration official who apparently registered on Netanyahu’s red-flag meter.

In an interview that aired Sunday on Israel’s Channel 10, Wendy Sherman, the administration’s chief negotiator in the Iran talks, said the US would be willing to “offer very limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief” in exchange for Iran agreeing to “stop [its] program from advancing further” while a comprehensive agreement is reached.

Netanyahu’s view – backed by a sizable portion of the US Congress – is that it is the sanctions’ hardship that brought Iran to the negotiating table, and that, if anything, the sanctions screws should be turned a bit tighter to force meaningful concessions from Iran.

Ms. Sherman, who is under secretary for political affairs, insisted the US will “keep in place the fundamental architecture of the oil and banking sanctions” that are severely straining Iran’s economy until and if a comprehensive agreement is reached.

But the administration opposes efforts in Congress to turn up the sanctions heat during negotiations.

The Senate was set to consider a new round of sanctions this week similar to one the House already passed earlier this year. But the administration was successful in getting the Senate to put off a vote on a new sanctions bill until at least next week – after this week’s Geneva talks – after Sherman asked Congress for “a few weeks” and the White House lobbied key senators.  

When Kerry meets Netanyahu, he’s likely to lay out the same solid reassurances that he offered earlier this week to another US ally shaken by Obama’s overtures to Iran.

Saudi Arabia, worried for years that its regional rival Iran would end up with a nuclear weapon, has nevertheless accepted US assurances that Obama means it when he says he will not allow Iran to build a bomb. That changed in September, some Middle East analysts say, when the administration sought Saudi support for a US strike on Syria that officials insisted would happen – only to have Obama change course and go with a diplomatic solution to Syria’s chemical weapons that leaves Saudi adversary Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus.

A furious Riyadh let Washington know it now doubted Obama’s resolve on Iran. That prompted Kerry’s hurry-up fence-mending visit with Saudi King Abdullah, in which the secretary committed to closer consultations with Saudi officials.

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On Iran, Kerry appears to have offered the Saudis the kind of tough words he’s likely to repeat in Jerusalem. Kerry’s objective with the Saudis, a senior State Department official says, was “making sure they understand the details of how firm our position is.”