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At first glance, there is something almost quixotic about John Kerry’s effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US secretary of state has certainly been energetic in the enterprise. It is less clear that he has the full-throated backing of the White House. And, anyway, should not the US be focusing on more pressing matters such as the civil war in Syria and coup in Egypt?

No one ever looked foolish by voicing pessimism about the long-misdescribed Middle East peace process. Many think Israel’s support for colonisation of the West Bank has rendered academic any debate about two states. As for Barack Obama, when did the US president last take a big political risk to match up to those fine speeches? And Mr Kerry? Some say the shuttle diplomacy is more a reflection of excessive self-belief than of real prospects for a breakthrough.

There is, however, another way of looking at this. If Mr Kerry does fail, the two-state game really will be over. Attention will turn to the rights of Palestinians trapped in West Bank bantustans. Israel will be obliged to face up to the choice it has always avoided: a state reaching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river cannot be at once Jewish and democratic. As to any other regional priorities, what else could the US be doing?

Over several days before the Egyptian coup, Washington sought to persuade the military not to remove President Mohamed Morsi. The pleas were brushed aside. Since then, the US has struggled to keep onside with the generals by agreeing that the toppling of an elected government was somehow something other than a coup.

Mr Obama must be getting used to setbacks. In August 2011 he called for the departure of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside”. Two years on, the Syrian leader remains firmly in place. There was a time when if a US president said someone had to go, one way or another they generally went.

The Europeans are weaker still. Britain and France imagined that the removal of Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi marked out a role for Europe in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Instead, tactical success in deposing Gaddafi has made way for strategic failure as Libya has fallen into armed chaos. London and Paris pressed for the lifting of the EU embargo on arms sales to anti-regime forces in Syria. Since then Mr Assad’s forces have advanced, yet Britain has now abandoned the idea of arming the rebels.

When Mr Morsi was ousted, leaders across Europe asked their advisers what they could do in response. The uncomfortable answer was “nothing much”. Not so long ago there was talk of a new model of interventionism that would square the war-weariness of voters with the protection of European interests. The west would act as the conductor of an orchestra of regional powers.

Now these powers are playing their own tunes. From time to time they grab the baton. Washington’s reluctance to call a coup a coup was explained by its concern to retain leverage by avoiding an automatic halt in US military aid. In Britain’s case, the government felt obliged to bow to pressure from the Saudis and Emiratis, who also happen to be bankrolling the new regime in Cairo.

Mr Obama’s much-trumpeted “pivot” to Asia was intended as a carefully calibrated shift away from the Middle East. As things have turned out, the Arab world has run well ahead of the White House in anticipating events. Unsurprisingly, Arabs have concluded that if the US is getting out, they had better get on with fighting their own corners.

Though there are myriad smaller fissures, the Middle East is now defined by its Sunni-Shia faultline– Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. No manner of western military intervention is going to settle the conflicts generated by this theocratic rivalry. The US is left to help contain Shia Iran and Hizbollah on one side and push back against Sunni jihadism on the other.

Many will argue that there is nothing much to be done. This week General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, poured several buckets of cold water over those who think a limited operation could tilt decisively the balance in Syria. Intervention, he observed, would mean war, with all the consequent costs in blood, treasure and unforeseen consequences.

That said, it is as much a mistake to underestimate as overestimate the limits of western power. This point was made eloquently the other day by David Miliband, the cerebral former British foreign secretary who is moving to New York to head the International Rescue Committee.

Delivering the Ditchley Foundation’s annual lecture, Mr Miliband warned that western indifference would see a decade of war give way to a decade of disorder. The US remains the most powerful nation on earth with political as well as military weight far outstripping any rival. It carries enormous economic clout. Europe, for all its self-inflicted wounds, wields serious economic and diplomatic power.

Most obviously, Americans and Europeans have a duty to alleviate the humanitarian consequences of conflict – and an interest in doing so. They also have a unique capacity to galvanise regional and international pressure for political settlements.

There is no glamour in this role. Negotiation does not grab the headlines in the way of cruise missiles. The effort will often fail. But as a British prime minister once said, there is not much in the way of an alternative. As Israel might have learnt, the one thing that does not bring peace is war. So Mr Kerry is right. We should cheer him on.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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Single-state Israel, democratic or not, can’t be ruled out / From Mr Ibrahim Hewitt

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