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Playing with Dynamite in the Middle East

Playing with Dynamite in the Middle East

David Ignatius has an interesting column making the case for guarded optimism in the ongoing Middle East peace talks. Ignatius’s argument makes a nice counterpoint to my bleaker assessment. Given his excellent sources, I presume his view is based on extensive backgrounders from key personnel and so is a good approximation of Secretary of State John Kerry’s thinking on the topic.

Ignatius has convinced me that the Kerry team has thought long and hard about how best to push for success. This is all good and to Kerry’s credit. But Ignatius has not yet convinced me that the Kerry team has thought long enough and hard enough about how best to deal with failure.

My continued skepticism is grounded in the metaphor Ignatius uses to motivate a more optimistic assessment. He says that the case for success hangs on the horrible consequences of failure. Kerry has, Ignatius argues, metaphorically convinced the Israelis and Palestinians to grab a stick of dynamite with a nine-month fuse. They can’t let go of the dynamite, and if they do not defuse it with a peace agreement within nine months, it will blow up in their face. That is so horrible a prospect that they will choose peaceful compromise.

In other words, Barack Obama’s administration has exported the logic of the sequester to the Middle East peace process — only this time the administration is convinced that it will work.

Recall that the Budget Control Act that established the sequester was presumed to contain two pills, one intolerably bitter to Democrats (cuts to domestic programs) and the other intolerably bitter to Republicans (cuts to defense). If the two sides did not reach a compromise agreement, each would have to swallow the bitter pill — or, to use Ignatius’s metaphor, if Democrats and Republicans did not reach a compromise, the stick of dynamite would blow up in their faces.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened. The pill proved bitter, but apparently not as bitter as a genuine compromise on fiscal matters. The Budget Control Act dynamite blew up and, even worse, is scheduled to blow up again. And this time, few seem to expect the blowup to be averted.

I suppose one could argue at a stretch that Israelis and Palestinians are more inclined to compromise under explosive threats than Democrats and Republicans since failure would result not just in loss of programs but perhaps immediate loss of life. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have claimed that real lives are at risk in the sequester. And as bad as partisanship is these days, there is a far-richer record of two-sided compromise in the U.S. Congress than in Israel-Palestine.

In sum, I get how the Kerry gambit is supposed to work, and there is definitely a logic by which it might. But if the key causal mechanism is "failure is too horrible, so the parties will succeed," the record for such mechanisms of late has not been so good. I think my original point stands: I hope it succeeds, and I just as fervently hope the United States has a good plan in case it doesn’t.