Five Things to Watch for in the Peace Process

How to tell if John Kerry's efforts with the Israelis and the Palestinians are actually going anywhere.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

There’s a great deal we don’t know (yet) about John Kerry’s efforts to resume negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. What assurances did the United States provide the two sides; what commitments did they make to him; indeed, what are the terms for resumption of talks?

One thing we do know is that with Arabs and Israelis nothing happens quickly — except failure. Arabs and Israelis have two speeds when it comes to negotiations: slow and slower. This is going to be a lengthy and complicated process. And so far the radio silence Kerry has maintained about the details of what he’s doing is quite impressive.

So how are we to know if this process is on the right track and won’t become just another woulda/shoulda/coulda enterprise? Here are five things on the U.S. side that I’d be on the lookout for.

(1) Are there written terms of reference or letters of assurance?

Right now, the Kerry effort seems suspended somewhere between talks about talks and real negotiations. A bridge needs to be built to move from one to the other. And that bridge consists of the parameters or terms of reference — e.g., June 1967 borders, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarization of a Palestinian state — that will guide the negotiations. Ideally, both sides would agree to them publicly and privately. That’s clearly not possible here.

More likely, commitments on sensitive matters either have or will be made privately to Kerry as the repository of the parties’ confidences or come in the form of assurances that the United States will provide each side in formal letters. In 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker used letters of assurance effectively in enticing the parties to attend the Madrid peace conference.

But Madrid was about process not substance. If two months from now the Israelis and Palestinians are still fighting about these parameters or publicly disavowing the ones they’ve committed to privately, we’ll know the effort is running in the wrong direction. Ambiguity is part of every diplomatic process, and 10 years ago it might have worked here, too. But this process has little credibility and a lack of clarity will kill it.

(2) Is there a negotiating text (and maps, too)?

Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood movie mogul, said it best: an oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. You’ll know this process is getting serious when the negotiators start writing things down. And a negotiating text — whether it’s some kind of agenda, a framework agreement on several of the core issues, or what we used to call a FAPS (a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status) — is critical not just to an agreement, but to how the negotiations are organized.

It’s too early to expect any common text to emerge. But without one sooner rather than later, even on the level of general principles, let alone an agreement embodying the universe of details, you might as well hang a "closed for the season" sign on this process and any hope for an agreement. That’s true for maps perhaps more than any other single element — they are a critical sign of seriousness or lack of seriousness. If we’re talking borders, then maps, particularly those presented by Israel, will become an early test of whether this is serious. No maps, no deal.

(3) Will there be U.S. bridging proposals?

It’s too early for them yet. Kerry needs to let both sides engage directly. But he should know that, with the exception of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, every other agreement that endured came not from direct talks only, but from U.S. mediation. Oslo, the poster child for direct talks, failed. At some point, what is now already obvious will become stunningly so: the gaps on the big issues cannot be bridged without U.S. intervention. Indeed, this time around there is even less ownership of the process by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Kerry is already the glue holding it together.

That means the United States will need to play a role in developing ideas and proposals designed to bridge the gap on the core issues. Look for our willingness and capacity to do that. If we’re not up to it or if we’re not prepared to be fair in the way we consider those proposals — and at the last serious attempt at mediation, the Camp David summit, we weren’t, instead choosing to side with or acquiesce in Israeli views — these talks won’t succeed. 

(4) Is Kerry bringing on a special envoy?

He must. After six Middle East trips and hundreds of additional hours spent, the secretary of state already realizes he can’t be the peace process Lone Ranger. Bringing Deputy Legal Advisor Jonathan Schwartz into the negotiations was probably the smartest staffing decision Kerry has made. John is not only a brilliant lawyer and wordsmith, but he also thinks a step or three ahead, anticipating in a cool and detached manner what Israeli and Palestinian needs and requirements are when it comes to the substance. My own sense that things were getting serious with Kerry went from 0 to 60 when I heard John was involved. Right now Schwartz is the only institutional memory Kerry has.

But it will take more than a brilliant lawyer to staff this up. The other data point to look for is a decision to bring in a special envoy. If these talks turn into negotiations, Kerry is going to need someone with negotiating experience in the Middle East, authority and stature. The negotiations will soon — if he’s lucky — become all-consuming, a 24/7 process; and despite the talents of the secretary’s Senate staff, Kerry will need a quarterback reporting to him directly to manage this, to travel when he can’t, to deal with the Europeans and the Arabs, and to coordinate an interagency process that will involve CIA and DOD. That individual will have to be someone who knows the players personally and the issues. And this decision needs to be made and announced soon. One candidate who has been mentioned prominently in recent days is Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

(5) Will Obama get involved?

The short answer to this question is "yes" — if talks appear to have a chance to succeed. If not, this will remain John Kerry’s peace process. This is not to say that the president won’t agree to meet with the leaders, make phone calls, etc. But getting the president to commit to a full-court press — attendance at a high-level leaders’ negotiating summit to close a deal — will depend on whether his secretary of state has brought the two sides to the point where the gaps between them can actually be closed. And we’re a long way from that. But at the end of the day, the president, not John Kerry, will have to close this deal — and risk a fair amount of political capital in the process. Indeed, a deal will mean pushing both sides farther than they were prepared to go. And in the case of Israel, this could get particularly messy.

Can Kerry Succeed?

Predicting the outcome of the Kerry effort is a pointless exercise. My own analysis on the peace process has been annoyingly negative not because of ideology, bias, or career change. My sober assessment flows from my agreement with one of America’s preeminent philosophers, Groucho Marx (or Harpo) in Duck Soup: Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? I see what I see; and it’s pretty tough to persuade me that a conflict-ending accord on all the big issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, is possible now.

That doesn’t mean that agreement on borders and security isn’t leading to provisional Palestinian statehood with commitments to negotiate the rest. But even that will take a heroic effort on the part of leaders who are more risk-averse politicians than great leaders. Can they do it anyway if pushed and supported by Kerry and Obama? We’ll find out soon enough.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. 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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