Madam Secretary

3 pieces of advice for Clinton on Mideast peace talks

3 pieces of advice for Clinton on Mideast peace talks

This weekend, Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, offered three pieces of advice to Secretary Clinton — OK, actually the U.S. government, but Clinton is the one facilitating the project — on Middle East peace negotiations. The three pieces of advice, published in the Washington Post, are:

1. Stand back. Don’t intrude excessively into what should be a two-party negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

2.  Care about the West Bank. If conditions deteriorate there, then Palestinians aren’t going to be supportive of the talks and the Palestinian Authority will have difficulty enforcing any agreement.

3. Don’t pursue a "framework agreement." Getting the two sides to declare their "fundamental compromises" — as U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell phrased it — amounts to revealing their bottom lines prematurely and committing "political suicide."

Well, on the first piece of advice, Clinton has no intention of being intrusive. She’s just going to be facilitator in chief. As she said to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in her opening remarks on Sept. 2 (with my emphasis in italics):

For our part, the United States has pledged its full support for these talks, and we will be an active and sustained partner.… But we cannot and we will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people.

And though there will be some trilateral meetings with the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. sides all present, there will be plenty of direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinians with the United States out of the room and not breathing down their necks. Already on Sept. 2, Netanyahu and Abbas had a private meeting, and more will take place, about every two weeks.

On the second piece of advice, Clinton is definitely concerned about the financial crisis with the Palestinian Authority. In a Sept. 3 interview with Palestine TV and Israel’s Channel 2, she said:

And the United States, as you, I’m sure, know, has increased dramatically our direct support for the Palestinian Authority. And I have encouraged and urged all the donors to do that and more. Last year was a good year. We got a very robust amount of contributions. This year, we are upping our request to all of the donors to support the peace process by supporting the Palestinian Authority.

Abrams makes a good point that oil-rich Arab countries could be contributing much more, and it appears that Clinton will be ceaseless with her phone calls to get them to pony up. A Sept. 5 New York Times article reports that she made "relentless phone calls" to get Arab support for the talks and that two-thirds of her phone calls to foreign officials since March have been about the Middle East. Clinton will surely be working the phones (3 a.m. and otherwise), cajoling and browbeating Arab countries to step up aid so the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have a meltdown.

As for not having a "framework agreement" — which Mitchell said during Sept. 2’s briefing is intended to "establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable the parties to then flesh out and complete a comprehensive agreement that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace" — the Israeli and Palestinian sides both say they want one. And if that’s what they both want, then Clinton should not be intrusive (see Advice No. 1) and not discourage it. Mitchell said during the briefing, "And the parties themselves have suggested and agreed that the logical way to proceed, to tackle them [the core issues] is to try to reach a framework agreement first."

So, it appears Clinton is following Abrams’s first two pieces of advice and intelligently disregarding the third. As pessimistic as most people seem to be, these talks could be a success. Stephen J. Hadley, who was national security advisor to Bush, told the New York Times, "One of the best indications that this could succeed is that Hillary Clinton is willing to get involved.… Because that makes me think two things: She thinks it’s possible and, because she is as skilled as she is, it increases the likelihood of success."