Reality Check

Don’t Call It a Shuttle

John Kerry arrived in the Holy Land in his latest attempt to jumpstart talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Here's how he can get the peace process off life support.

Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images
Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images

War threatens the Korean Peninsula, Syria is imploding, and negotiations with Iran are at an impasse — even as the centrifuges continue to spin toward a nuclear nirvana for the mullahs. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry spent his weekend trying to wrestle with the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Confused about Kerry’s priorities? Don’t be. Pushing for progress on the Mideast peace process is both necessary and commendable.

The Palestinian problem isn’t the key to regional tranquility. It never was and never will be. But it will continue to be a drag on American credibility in a region that has grown increasingly angry, anti-American, and dysfunctional — particularly now that acquiescent authoritarians like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak have passed from the scene. The United States has less regional cover now, and its policies are more exposed to the fiery cauldron of Arab public opinion than ever before.

The issue isn’t whether the United States should engage, but how. Kerry, Obama’s point man for this mission, confronts a conundrum: The two-state solution is too complicated to implement now, but it’s also too important to abandon. It’s hard to see how to square this particular circle at the moment.

That brings us to the matter of John Kerry and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the secretary of state undertakes his third visit to the not-so-holy-land in as many months, here are four "don’ts" — and one "do" — about how to revive the stalled peace process.

Don’t call this a shuttle

Kerry hasn’t used the "s" word, to my knowledge. He’s said repeatedly — probably too many times — that he isn’t carrying a ready-made plan or initiative in his pocket.

But the press — struck by the difference in style from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton — has started beating the drum that we’re heading into some kind of U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Sooner rather than later, some journalists would have you believe, the secretary of state will embark on some urgent mission in which he hooks the parties around some negotiating text and shuttles back and forth between the parties in breathless pursuit of an agreement. We can only hope so.

In the Middle East context, the "s" word was first used by Henry Kissinger in 1973 and 1974. The late Undersecretary of State Joe Sisco, or more likely the inestimable Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, invented the term. It would come to describe the successful pursuit of three disengagement agreements — two between Israel and Egypt, and one between Israel and Syria. The latter took 33 days — making it the longest period in which a secretary of state had been out of the United States since Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919.

But whatever Kerry is trying to do, he’s not shuttling. A couple of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah doesn’t a shuttle make. Shuttle diplomacy requires urgency, Arabs and Israelis who really are serious about a deal, a negotiating text, and a willful and empowered mediator prepared to use honey and vinegar to bring the two sides together. It helps immensely if the broker is prepared to walk away from the enterprise if the parties don’t cooperate. Is any of that in place now?

Don’t overestimate the importance of personality

And this brings us to a related point. I’ve harped in this space repeatedly on the skills and virtues of two previous secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. But without the circumstances that allowed them to display their formidable talents, there would have been no virtuoso performance. And the most important of these circumstances is the urgency of the moment — usually driven by both pain and gain, which impels the locals to change their calculations and readjust their horizons to consider an agreement.

Do we really think Kissinger could have succeeded without the 1973 October war, Jimmy Carter without Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, or Baker without America’s victory in the first Gulf War? Those guys were good — but they weren’t that good.

No matter how smart and determined Kerry is, he can’t manufacture that sense of urgency nor fabricate the ownership required by the Arabs and Israelis to reach an agreement. He can prod, push, bribe, and cajole — but without the parties’ need for the deal, it’s not going to happen.

The absence of that urgency and ownership is why there has been no consequential U.S.-brokered agreement since Baker’s Madrid conference. That’s right — since October 1991. I’ll do the math: That’s nearly 22 years.

Don’t push for talks for the sake of talks

I’m sure Kerry has already figured this out. Going back to the table without some mutually agreed terms of reference, guidelines, and a code of conduct will mean motion without movement and undermine what’s left of the negotiating process — not to mention Kerry’s credibility.

What could possibly come of a rush to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table if the gaps that separate them are too wide, neither side is invested in the proposals, and the lack of trust is so deep that neither side is prepared to give the other the benefit of the doubt? At Madrid, we knew that talking for the sake of talking was worth something — old taboos were broken, new bonds formed. But that was then.

After two decades of failed talks, violence, broken trust, negotiations without direction are not just a key to an empty room, they’re destructive and harmful. No negotiations are better than dishonest ones.

Don’t become part of the furniture

Baker made nine trips to the Middle East in 1991 to pull off the Madrid conference. Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, travelled to the Middle East 20-some times to support the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreements. Some criticized him for it, and there was certainly a lot of process and little peace. But that diplomacy helped support the Oslo process, facilitate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and broker agreements between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria along the Israeli-Lebanese border. That was a lot of time in the air, to be sure, but the diplomacy actually led to results.

Kerry will soon face a separate frequent-flyer problem. For a new secretary of state, three trips in as many months to assess the situation on the ground makes sense. But if Kerry makes a few more without gaining some traction, he will increasingly risk being taken for granted by the Israelis and Palestinians — too much a part of the furniture.  Both parties can smell an empty suit a mile away. Without results, the Kerry’s street cred will rapidly diminish.

The new secretary of state must preserve his authority, and that’s undermined by repeated travel viewed as motion without movement. Working on a proposal to get the parties back to the table without a way to keep them there just won’t cut it. Condi Rice got her own Hebrew verb — le kandel — for her eight trips to put together the Annapolis Conference. The word means "to do nothing."

In this regard, Kerry has a bureaucratic problem. He’s right to shy away from appointing a high-level envoy, but he does need a person of some stature who reports to him and can work this issue 24/7, particularly in the region. There are problems with allowing his assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs to play that role: It’s a big region and the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a full-time business. Nor can the U.S. ambassador to Israel or the consul general in Jerusalem do it, because it’s hard for them to engage with both sides. But if this process gets going, he will need someone who can travel to the reg
ion with a frequency that he simply can’t.

Do: Identify a strategy

I know this seems so obvious that it shouldn’t need repeating. But just take a look at Obama’s first term: A bunch of very smart people either thought they had a strategy, or figured they didn’t need one. Either way, what emerged — pushing Netanyahu on a comprehensive settlement freeze — took bumbling to a new level.

Describing Kerry’s challenge is simple. Given the current impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, what might work?

Here’s what won’t — a focus on confidence-building measures. It’s the 20th anniversary of Oslo — a heroic process that failed in part because its interim character couldn’t be tied to a political horizon that included a resolution to the core issues of the status of Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees.

The other idea whose time hasn’t come — but is already linked to Kerry’s talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — is using the Turks to lean on Hamas to recognize Israel. It’s a curious strategy that threatens to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, alienate Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, and provide a justification for some Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to put the negotiations on permanent hold. And it will also embroil Obama in a political mess with Congress and the pro-Israel community.

Every think tank in Washington is basically sending the same message to Kerry: A conflict-ending agreement isn’t possible now, so focus on getting an agreement on principles or terms of reference on the big issues. And try to begin with a focus on borders and security — the two issues where the gaps are narrowest.

This approach makes sense, but has its drawbacks. Jerusalem is a territorial issue too, and by breaking the issues apart you remove the capacity to do trade-offs. For Palestinians, deferring Jerusalem and refugees is a major problem, and the chances of getting this Israeli government and Abbas to agree on setting the border based on some variation of the June 1967 lines is remote.

Still, it’s likely that Kerry will try to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to pursue some variant of the security for sovereignty tradeoff, together with confidence-building measures in the initial phase.

Will it work? Well, who knows. But along the way, a moment will invariably come when success or failure may depend on a sustained intervention and some risk taking by the president. We already know Kerry cares about the two-state solution — he’s spending his weekends in Jerusalem and Ramallah instead of his pad on Nantucket. But does the president? At some point, we’re also going to find out whether — or to be more precise, just how much — Barack Obama cares.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2

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