The Tough Task of Middle East Peace

The components of a successful American peace bid.

Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be urging President Obama to consider launching a new U.S. effort to end the paralysis that currently plagues Israeli-Palestinian relations. It is not clear whether the president supports this idea, but his scheduled trip to Israel in March also includes a stop in Ramallah. This has spurred speculation that Obama is not dismissive of the proposed U.S. reengagement in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Indeed, recently this possibility seems to have led to visits to Washington by Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy for talks with the Palestinians, Itzhak Molcho, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat.

While they should not be discouraged, the president and Secretary Kerry should ponder what a successful effort in this realm might require. Indeed, even the first steps in such a journey will breed huge expectations. And if they are not met because the task will prove too taxing, there will be great disappointment, resulting not only in another setback to U.S. standing in the Middle East but also the possibility of a new eruption of Arab-Israeli violence.

Assuming that the Obama administration decides that a breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli relations is important not only for its own sake, but also for addressing other U.S. national interests in the Middle East, what would it take to achieve such a breakthrough? The long history of the efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict—and particularly its Palestinian-Israeli dimension—yields at least eight different requirements for success:

Requirement 1: Examine the conditions. Previous breakthroughs in this realm required a prior dramatic development—what some call a game changer: The 1973 War led to the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreements and later to the Camp David Accords; the 1991 Gulf War led to Madrid and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty; and the First Palestinian Intifada led to Oslo.

In the absence of a a game changing event, it is difficult to see how it would be possible to overcome three negative dimensions of the current environment: first, the fragmentation of the Palestinian side between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza; second, the highly committed, energized and mobilized minority opposing such a breakthrough in Israel, including within Likud; and finally, the impact of the Arab Awakening on the extent to which neighboring Arab countries could be helpful, which is discussed further below.

Requirement 2: Secure time, energy and political capital. The expenditure of these scarce commodities by the president and the secretary will be required for at least three reasons: First, the Arab-Israeli conflict is very complicated and very resilient. For over sixty-five years it has eluded many efforts to resolve it. For the Obama administration to succeed where most previous administrations have failed will require a heroic effort. Second, the conflict is as much a part of the U.S. domestic agenda as it is part of its international relations. And third, Israeli and Arab leaders have been spoiled and expect the personal involvement of U.S. presidents (Carter, Clinton) or their secretaries of state (Kissinger, Baker, Christopher, Albright, Rice). As a result, they will not deal seriously with anyone of lesser rank.

Requirement 3: Empower the deputized. The other issues on Obama’s plate—from the economy through immigration reform and gun control—will limit the time and energy that he would be able to devote to breaking the current stalemate in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Hence, if such a breakthrough is to be attempted, the president would need to deputize one of his most senior officials, most likely Kerry. If he were to do so, Obama must find ways of conveying to Israeli and Arab leaders that Kerry is speaking for him and that no distance between them can be exploited. Without Presidents Nixon, Ford and the first Bush having found ways to convey a similar message, Secretaries of State Kissinger and Baker would not have succeeded.

Requirement 4: Bring Congress on board. The president would need to make every effort to reduce the odds that Congress will take measures that may undermine the revamping of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. At the very least, he should make sure that his own party’s leaders in Congress are on board. This would require explaining to Congressional leaders what he would be attempting to achieve, his assessments of how this could be done and how it advances America’s other national interests in the region, while addressing their likely concerns about these efforts.

Requirement 5: Change the operative principle of negotiations. The principle upon which Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from Camp David to Taba were based—nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon—should be dropped. It had a toxic effect because it meant that any progress achieved was held hostage to the most difficult issues. Instead, the opposite principle should be adopted: whatever is agreed upon should be implemented. This will allow Israelis and Palestinians to see progress on the ground. And however small that progress might be, it will be very significant given the present pessimism among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

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