Reality Check

Second Time’s the Charm?

Congratulations, John Kerry. You own the peace process now. Here's how not to screw it up.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The good thing about being a U.S. secretary of state in a president’s second term is that you have a chance to learn from the mistakes of the first. And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Barack Obama made some doozies.

Let’s be clear. The president is not the reason Israelis and Palestinians did not join hands for peace at a triumphant Camp David summit. The dysfunctional local actors have to answer the mail on that one. But the president committed four stumble bumbles that made an already bad situation worse.

I’m betting that Secretary of State John Kerry — reportedly very keen on the peace process — won’t make the same mistakes. He may indeed make others, but steering clear of these will at least give him a better start than his boss had last time round.

1. No special envoy

Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone and text, and consequential secretaries of state take on the Arab-Israeli issue. They don’t subcontract it out to former presidents, or would-be secretaries of state. (See: Bill Clinton, George Mitchell.)

Special envoys sow bureaucratic confusion and dilute the secretary’s authority. And in the case of Mitchell, whom Obama appointed as his special envoy for Middle East peace and then never truly empowered, they confuse the Arabs and Israelis, providing opportunities for all kinds of mischief.

In the end, it’s the secretary of state who sets up the deal — and that person will become the natural repository of the confidence, anger, and trust of the Israelis and Palestinians. The secretary deploys the president when a breakthrough is needed, and of course positions him to close the deal at the crucial moment.

If the White House lets him, that will be John Kerry’s responsibility. It shouldn’t be delegated to an envoy.

2. No public fight on a settlements freeze

Obama made three mistakes on settlements: He pushed for a freeze that he could never deliver, failed to tie concessions from Israel to a serious strategy, and then backed down when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought back, thereby undermining U.S. credibility with both sides.

Kerry is smarter than that. He understands how harmful settlements are, but won’t push the Israelis into a corner or wage a public fight. He also stands to be luckier than Obama in his first term because, given the result of Israel’s election, the next government in Jerusalem is likely to contain more centrist elements than its predecessor. That means it may well tone down the settlements push, and certainly will avoid radioactive projects like building in the E-1 area near Jerusalem.

Settlements will remain a problem, but Kerry is wise enough to understand that fighting the big fight on this issue is the key to an empty room. The issue needs to be part of a broader deal. I suspect the White House knows this now too.

3. Make a friend out of Bibi

Given the dysfunctional state of the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Kerry has an opportunity to do two things. First, if he’s the administration’s point man on the peace process, he needs to build a relationship with Bibi. He can’t move anywhere without one.

And second, Kerry can serve as something of a buffer to ease the neuralgia between the two. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis said the other day in a session at the Wilson Center, during the talks that led up to the Camp David Accords, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance played a critical role in courting Menachem Begin, even while Carter and the prime minister never did all that much business together before the summit itself. That tie between Vance and Begin — together with the secretary’s relationship with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan — really paved the way for the peace deal. There will be plenty of time for Kerry to fight with Netanyahu if he can’t find a way to cooperate.

4. Don’t be breathless

Perhaps for understandable reasons, Obama came charging out of the gate with no strategy and no coherent set of tactics, equipped only with big ideas and soaring rhetoric. Middle East envoy, challenge on settlements, new sheriff in town, and so forth. The lackluster results were predictable.

Kerry already has signaled his interest in moving the peace process forward and that’s precisely why he should slow it down. A big early start with nothing in his pocket doesn’t make any sense. Indeed, reports that he wanted to visit Israel as part of a regional tour — perhaps even before the Israeli elections — made no sense.

What’s the point? Kerry should wait until the next Israeli coalition government is formed, and then see what terms will be necessary to get it back to the negotiating table. Don’t crowd anyone or anybody now — how many exploratory, fact-finding trips can a secretary of state make before Israelis and Palestinians start seeing him as an empty suit, part of the furniture?

Unless Kerry is carrying something special — maybe a message from the president inviting the parties to conduct bilateral discussions in Washington, or plans for a presidential visit to Israel –he should take a deep breath, relax, and play the long game. There will be plenty of trips to Israel before the end of his tenure.

I’m pretty confident Kerry won’t make the same mistakes his boss did in 2009 and 2010. His real challenge now really doesn’t involve the Palestinians and Israelis at all. It’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do about an imploding Syria, a nuclear Iran, and an increasingly unstable Egypt.

Oh, and one more thing. If Kerry wants to do anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he’ll first need to persuade Obama to let him really own it.  That doesn’t mean being the Lone Ranger of the peace process, but it does mean that he and his team will need to shape and sell their approach to the president, and not just implement a strategy designed by somebody else.

And who better to do this than Kerry? If Obama buys into his approach, he can be the envoy that works the issue, deploys the president as necessary, and in the end brings him in for the guts-and-glory phase. Whether the strategy is to manage the conflict or conclusively resolve it, it’s a Kerry strategy. And that’s what serious secretaries of state are supposed to do.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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