Wye Gamble?

Wye Gamble?

Mini Teaser: Wye's fate will be more important to American interests than Oslo ever was.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

As with the famous September 13, 1993 handshake on the White House lawn, and as with every other symbolic passage in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since, the quick-firing impresarios of the electronic media have referred to the Wye Memorandum as a peace agreement. Like its predecessors, however, it is only an agreement about peace that may, but does not necessarily, lead us closer to it. Wye's real significance, rather, lies in three other, related domains.

First, whether it paves the way to final status or breaks down during its twelve-week implementation period, Wye spells the end of the basic logic of the Oslo process.

Oslo was designed as a confidence-building device to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a point where resolving their core differences could at least be contemplated. As a way of testing whether the parties were ready for conciliation, Oslo, or something like it, has to be reckoned a necessary step for achieving peace. But the testing phase has now run its course, and the grade earned is not so good. With patience having worn paper thin on all sides, it is inconceivable that another twenty-one months--the period from Hebron to Wye--could elapse in interim limbo. Wye will either get the parties from the foothills of interim measures to the summit of final status or, before very long, prove that the ascent is not yet possible. Unlike Oslo II of September 1995 and the Hebron accord of January 1997, Wye does not reprieve and repackage Oslo but, for better or worse, transcends it.

If for worse, Wye will break down short of full implementation. As I write in mid-November, this seems eminently possible. The schedule has already slipped, and the language of the Memorandum itself, as well as post-summit interpretations of its contents by both sides, amounts to a multiple-vehicle accident waiting to happen. But even if Wye survives its infancy, the best that one can reasonably expect are final status negotiations that are too fractious to make much headway, but too precocious to be allowed to fail. In other words, we could be in for another protracted bout of process without substance, and for the same reason that Oslo endured so long despite its shortcomings: the absence of a palatable alternative. Either way, Oslo's logic no longer applies. Neither side can put store any longer in interim arrangements that erode rather than build confidence, and a stalled final status negotiation will at least be about final status, not interim, issues.

As important, both the psychological and physical conditions of Israeli-Palestinian relations have changed irrevocably. In September 1993 the Palestinians lacked a sustainable territorial base from which to pursue their interests. Assuming that Wye is eventually implemented, they will have acquired quite a solid one--and with it a lot more to lose than ever before. For this reason, too, Oslo's historic labors are over.

Only the naive ever imagined that Israelis and Palestinians would be on the verge of a complete solution to the century-old conflict over the land of Israel in just a little over five years. But only cynics failed to appreciate the prospect that Oslo could midwife a higher quality Israeli-Palestinian confrontation--a learning to live beyond war despite an inability to live in true peace. That being so, Wye's second real significance is that its terms will inevitably mark political and military "red lines" for all parties in what will remain, like it or not, an ongoing conflict. Wye is less likely to be a bridge to a successful final status negotiation than a barricade against a mutual disavowal of diplomacy and retrogression into mass violence.

This is no small matter. There has always been a chance that the eventual failure to resolve key issues--borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water--would threaten to transform Oslo's interim psychology of prophylactic optimism into one of "no more Mr. Nice Guy." Now that expectations have been healthily lowered all around, the task at hand is to prevent them from being crushed altogether. At this sensitive moment--beyond the interim logic of Oslo but shy of its formal May 4 expiration--the Wye Memorandum is well suited to advancing this limited but precious end. This because for the first time the Palestinian Authority's repeatedly lapsed obligations with respect to both security cooperation and public rhetoric (including the Covenant issue) are thoroughly detailed, as are several Israeli commitments. The sides do not yet agree on all the rules that should obtain between them, but at least now they have a reasonably well-calibrated ruler with which to measure their differences.

Wye is also of use to the parties because it names an authoritative third-party arbiter--the U.S. government--to apply that ruler. Thus the Memorandum's third mark of significance: a qualitative deepening of the U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

By making such a heavy investment of diplomatic prestige, the United States has acquired an intense interest in Wye's success. For the short-term, this may be beneficial to Israelis and Palestinians, but it represents a huge long-term gamble for the United States and the local protagonists alike. One aspect of that gamble is that the new U.S. role might reduce incentives for the parties to negotiate with each other and further increase incentives to negotiate with Washington. This would be counterproductive, as even the run-up to Wye makes clear.

It is important to be precise here. There is a difference between U.S. mediation that brings the parties together and a mediation that substantively affects what happens once they have met. None of the progress made since 1973, which has reduced the Arab-Israeli conflict from a major threat to international security to a neighborhood-scale problem, could have been achieved without the first kind of effort. The latter sort, on the other hand, is contentious. Some have argued that only U.S. imposition and management of a settlement can achieve peace--though what sort of peace that could be has never been clear. For the most part, U.S. diplomats have wisely rejected that advice, reasoning that genuine conciliation cannot be forced from the outside.

It is not always easy, however, to keep the two sorts of mediation separate. Relations between Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu deteriorated so dramatically after Hebron that some way had to be found to restore direct contact between them. But one of the means employed--U.S. pressure on Israel to accept a 13. percent territorial withdrawal, and this despite explicit American assurances in a side letter to the Hebron accord that it would bring no such pressure--concerned a key matter of substance.

The administration understood the risk, but took it anyway. The result was that Arafat concluded that he needn't make concessions to Netanyahu because the Americans were doing his heavy lifting for him. Realizing the precedent for final status that would be set if he succumbed to such pressure, Netanyahu strove mightily to deflect it, to the point of rejecting ultimata delivered up close and personal by the U.S. secretary of state. Only when Secretary Albright told Arafat that she could not deliver the Israelis, and that he would have to drive his own bargain as best he could, did the fabric of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin to reweave itself. In essence, then, it was the deflection of U.S. pressure, partial and temporary though it turned out to be, that led to the Memorandum, not the pressure itself.

The delicacy of U.S. policy after Wye lies in the need to rebalance its mediation away from the substantive and toward the procedural sort. American policymakers are well aware of this need. Two of the Memorandum's five side letters from the United States to Israel emphasize the point: assurances that the United States will not adopt a substantive position on a third Israeli redeployment, and that it will not get involved in the details of final status negotiations. But the United States is so enmeshed in the Memorandum that it will not be easy to avoid getting involved in matters of substance down the road. Process will creep toward substance because the parties will not be able to settle their differences without U.S. intercession. So if final status talks falter, as is virtually inevitable, Wye's "red lines" will apply not only to Israelis and Palestinians but to Americans suspended between them as well. In short, the task may turn out to be too delicate by half.

Too much substantive U.S. involvement would be dangerous for the peace process in any event, but it will be even worse if the Clinton administration papers over Palestinian non-compliance with its commitments. Unfortunately, it would not be surprising if it did, for this administration has already brokered several deals--over Bosnia, North Korea, Iraq, and, prospectively, Kosovo--whose violations the United States subsequently failed to rectify for fear of wrecking the appearance of diplomatic achievement. If it happens in the case of Wye, it will sharply reduce chances for peace, because the Israeli willingness to make concessions is partly a function of its underlying trust in American support.

Washington's Wye gamble transcends even the Israeli-Palestinian domain. The United States has no magic wand and if, despite its best efforts, Israel and the Palestinians cannot make significant progress, Washington will be tagged with the failure. Until Wye, U.S. diplomats could credibly threaten to "walk away" if Israelis and Palestinians failed to engage their own better natures. That is no longer possible. The law in superpower diplomacy is that if you broker it, you buy it--and that is what the Clinton administration has done. Despite the best instincts of its long-serving and long-suffering experts on the subject, it has bought into the details of Israeli-Palestinian concatenations and contentions at such an advanced level that it now half owns them. And like every purchase, this one carries a price.

It could be a steep one. U.S. interests are best served by minimizing the link between the noisome but not inherently dangerous Israeli-Palestinian quarrel and the far more worrisome ones of Southwest Asia, but the U.S. vow to bring the likes of Benyamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat to terms maximizes it instead. Having thus raised the bet, an American failure to manage matters successfully would put in jeopardy as never before wider U.S. interests from Casablanca to Kabul.

Again it is important to be precise, for the linkage issue is another in which a simple distinction goes a long way. There is a difference between acknowledging some linkage between U.S. success in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and the state of U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf on the one hand, and allowing policy to be driven by such a linkage on the other. The former is a prudential acknowledgement of fact, the latter a manifestation of bad judgment.

In the first place, such linkage as does exist is often exaggerated. In practical terms, it lately has meant that if America's Arab allies are leery of supporting U.S. threats against Iraq when they doubt the seriousness of those threats, they will publicly justify their reticence by reference to alleged U.S. failings to pressure Israel. While Arab leaders are not entirely unconcerned with the fortunes of the Palestinians, to take such protestations at face value speaks poorly for the professionalism of U.S. diplomats. Moreover, linkage works in the other direction as well: U.S. weakness in dealing with Iraqi (and Iranian) assaults against regional stability encourages the escalation of threats against Israel, making Israeli leaders less willing to take security risks for peace with the Palestinians--especially since Palestinians have inclined to cheer Saddam each time he gets into a test of wills with the United States.

The renewal of U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation through a separate Memorandum of Understanding signed at Wye reflects at least a belated recognition of this latter sort of linkage. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has mishandled the former sort. Last winter's crisis with Iraq increased U.S. concern with the Oslo stasis and helped produce imbalanced pressure on Israel. Just days after Wye, Secretary Albright, apparently thinking the linkage problem solved, urged America's Arab allies to support the new accord.

Embarrassingly, they demurred, and it is not hard to see why. With another U.S.-Iraqi confrontation brewing, they knew that the effort to solicit their support for Wye was prelude to soliciting it for another U.S. tilting against Saddam. Remembering what happened with the Iraqis last winter, one can forgive their reluctance to sign on in public.

It is harder to forgive the administration for not grasping what this reluctance says about linkage: that we are the missing link. Diplomatic pyrotechnics like Wye cannot substitute for a regional policy otherwise lacking in credibility and verve. If the administration had shown proper understanding and determination from the outset in dealing with Iraq, Israelis would better trust our brokerage and our Arab friends would better trust our protection. They would then have a good deal less incentive to offload their anxieties onto one another, and everyone, except Saddam and the mullahs, would be much better off for it.

The Wye Memorandum is justified in terms of what it may do for Israeli-Palestinian comity. But by magnifying the regional stake in the American management of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy without enhancing in like proportion the prospects for peace, it may unwittingly injure other relationships that are strategically more important. Not a good idea but, once again, something we should be used to by now. The Clinton administration has committed U.S. and NATO prestige in the Balkans at the expense of ultimately more important U.S.-Russian relations. It recently brokered a deal between feuding Kurdish factions at the risk of harming a crucial strategic relationship with Turkey. It has appeased North Korea in hope of buying time and avoiding crisis, but in so doing has scared the wits out of the Japanese, whose full attention we have sought over international economic issues of the highest importance. Wye's upside-down strategic gamble is wholly in character with the administration's chronic failure to prioritize U.S. interests.

For reasons good and not so good, then, Wye's fate will be more important to American interests than Oslo ever was. So, to the by now almost ritualized expression of hope that this latest Israeli-Palestinian effort at peacemaking works out for the best, we should add this time that, strictly from a U.S. perspective, it had better.

Essay Types: Essay