"The Table Is Set and the Guests Are Ready"

I fear the United States has lost its will and determination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of brokering Middle East peace. Ever since the shuttle diplomacy in 1991 of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III that resulted in the Madrid Peace Conference - an event that shattered longstanding taboos about Middle East peacemaking and that launched bilateral and multilateral negotiations - U.S. leaders and officials have been reluctant, though periodically active, peacemakers. Americans have become prone to resort to lofty rhetoric and armchair diplomacy. While sometimes demonstrating strong emotional commitment and sometimes engaging quite earnestly with the parties, we have not shown toughness on the toughest issues. The results have been minimal and often counterproductive.
Even when our leaders have given it their all, the results have turned sour. President Bill Clinton did not engage in Middle East peace efforts until midway into his second term, and then embarked on a series of high-profile diplomatic gambits whose failures seeded an already dismal environment, the result of which was bloodshed rather than reconciliation. President George W. Bush articulated a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, and he oversaw the formulation of a Road Map for moving toward a realization of that vision. But there was no sustained U.S. effort or leadership and no willingness to push on both sides to take hard steps. The result was a Road Map to nowhere and a vision without substance. American leaders and envoys, it appears, have been unwilling to take the hardest steps toward the peace we say is so vital to our national interests.
In itself, American reticence to exert the leadership required to catalyze a Middle East peace breakthrough would not be a problem if the parties would go off by themselves and negotiate peace or if they would empower another third party to assist them. Neither of these has succeeded for long. Israelis and Palestinians used Norwegian auspices - largely confined to hosting secret talks and arranging logistics - to negotiate the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Norwegians periodically helped resolve a small problem or two, but they never played the role of mediator. Much later, the two sides engaged with the Quartet, composed of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, to oversee and monitor implementation of the Road Map; but as useful as the Quartet proved to be in concerting external parties' strategy, it proved too unwieldy to do the agile diplomacy required of an active peace process. Throughout this period, even when Norway or the Quartet appeared to be in charge, both Israel and the Palestinians agreed that only the U.S. could act as mediator.
For this reason, U.S. reticence to demonstrate diplomatic strength in the peace process and the peace process failures when the U.S. did engage are puzzling. I am currently directing a study at the United States Institute of Peace that will assess U.S. negotiating behavior during this period, and this study may yield more precise answers as to why the Arabs, Israelis and the Americans were unable to translate a very positive environment for peacemaking into peace. In the meantime, it may be possible to offer some hypotheses for these diplomatic failures and to suggest some ways to move forward.
Baker's success in 1991 and the success of some earlier U.S. mediation efforts - such as former President Jimmy Carter's brokering Egyptian-Israeli peace and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's helping Israel, Egypt and Syria negotiate three disengagement agreements after the 1973 war - have a number of important features in common. First, they all enjoyed the unqualified support and backing of the American president. The Middle East parties understood that the U.S. president had decided to make the Middle East a priority interest of the U.S., which is no small matter. In support of this national interest, U.S. presidents conveyed promises of assistance, assurances of policy support or pressure to change positions in the negotiations that carried substantial weight and influence. No one has ever accused leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin, Hafez al-Assad, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir of softness, and yet each ended up making concessions in negotiations that derived directly from the persuasive pressure and/or tangible support of a U.S president.
A second issue relates to accountability - did the U.S., as third party, do enough to hold the parties accountable for implementing or failing to implement agreements? For example, the U.S. traditionally has expressed unqualified support for Israeli security requirements, but has also argued that its willingness to tilt in favor of Israeli security demands was designed to make it easier for Israel to make political or territorial concessions for peace. This point was tested seriously whenever the Palestinians resorted to terrorism, breaking their commitment at Oslo to renounce and uproot terror from their midst. The U.S. condemned such acts of terror, but there was no consequence for Palestinians having broken their commitment. In such cases, how seriously could Israel accept U.S. statements of support for its security needs?
A third feature common to successful negotiations was the willingness of the U.S. to adopt positions that were not identical to those of the parties. The U.S. did not necessarily "split the difference" between the sides or always come out in the middle, but it did find ways to articulate positions which could represent possible compromises or launch negotiations in the right direction. Over the past 15 years, this element has been largely absent from U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, when the U.S. did put forward a proposal at Camp David in 2000, the paper was quickly withdrawn in the face of reservations expressed by both sides.
Successful U.S. mediation efforts also demonstrated willingness by the incumbent president to adhere to his policies and approach, even in the face of opposition from the parties and domestic U.S. opposition. Carter and Begin disagreed profoundly over Israeli settlements policies - as did President George H.W. Bush and Shamir. But the U.S. presidents stood their ground, notwithstanding the high domestic political costs of such confrontations. No president was eager to buck domestic interest groups, but the successful president understood that helping to broker Middle East peace required the articulation of positions that could elicit strong, opposing views from important domestic constituencies. In contrast to this, throughout their presidential years, Clinton and Bush never set out a U.S. position in Arab-Israeli affairs that aroused opposition from the American Jewish community, suggesting that domestic considerations were an inhibitor in each administration when it came to brokering Middle East peace.
Perhaps most important among the factors of previous U.S. success was sustainability and determination. Given the amount of time and effort that he put into the Middle East in the last two years of his administration, Clinton's interest in a Middle East peace settlement cannot be questioned. What can be asked, however, is where the drive and determination were during the first six years of the Clinton Administration, at a time when the ingredients for peacemaking seemed so favorable and when responsibility for U.S. peacemaking was turned over to a special Middle East coordinator?  It was during this period that bad habits and bad behavior become the norm for the parties in the region. It appeared, throughout this period, that the process itself became the goal for the United States, that is, keeping alive Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian engagement became so important as ends in themselves that U.S. negotiators lost sight of the need to press all the parties toward the goal of peace. To be sure, none of our negotiators during that period can be accused of lack of effort or determination; but it can be asked whether they consistently drove the parties toward the hard decisions required in the peacemaking process.
This question can be asked with even greater urgency with reference to the Bush Administration's approach to the peace process. This administration has seemed far more content with pronouncements than with active diplomacy. Bush's 2002 vision of peace will stand as a highlight of his administration, but what happened after he spoke the words?  A year later he launched the Road Map, only to see it fail within three months without any serious U.S. effort to assist its implementation. A U.S. official was appointed to oversee the Road Map, but he came to the job with no experience in the rough and tumble world of Middle East politics. By the time he had set up monitoring system, the Road Map had collapsed. The president dispatched a number of emissaries - ranging from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to former CIA Director George Tenet to General Anthony Zinni - but each was launched without White House support needed at critical moments in their diplomatic efforts.
So it is against this backdrop that current prospects for active U.S. diplomatic engagement must be assessed. Even if we extract Iraq and Iran from the equation - the two most pressing Middle East issues on the administration's agenda - the short answer is that this administration has provided no reason to believe that it will engage seriously or in a sustained fashion in helping to broker Arab-Israeli peace. President Bush has said that the achievement of a two-state solution is one of his administration's highest priorities, but he has done almost nothing to back up those important words with even minimal deeds. As Bush grapples with the crisis in Iraq and the emerging crisis in Iran, it is unrealistic to believe that he will change course on Arab-Israeli issues, adopt positions that could be unpopular at home and dive in head first into peace brokering. High-sounding rhetoric likely will remain the preferred diplomatic approach of this administration.
As difficult as it is to envisage the resumption of an active Middle East peace process, however, the prospects are not entirely dismal. First, the Israeli and Palestinian publics continue to tell pollsters that they are ready to make the necessary concessions for peace. Despite many years of violence, public opinion within both communities remains supportive of peace. Now that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas have met, there is an opportunity to line up the will of the people with the creativity and political ingenuity of their leaders.
Second, for the first time in years, even Syria is sending signals of its interest in resuming a peace process. Syrian behavior has been abysmal in all respects - Lebanon, Iraq, terrorism. And yet the public pronouncements out of Damascus warrant more than the knee-jerk rejection that has been Washington's reaction.
A third factor relates to the seismic, strategic changes underway in the region. Saudi Arabia appears far more ready for regional stabilization - including peace between Israel and the Palestinians - than at any time in the past; and the Saudis have on the table a peace proposal which appears to be of interest, at least in part, to Israel's leadership. If the opportunity of the Saudi peace plan was overlooked in 2002, perhaps it can be exploited in 2007.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, there is a government coalition in Israel demonstrably supportive of peace, and a prime minister who is on the public record as promising unprecedented territorial concessions in the context of a peace process. The issue in Israel today is no longer the will to make peace or Israeli settlements policy; Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza and Prime Minister Olmert's election prove clearly that Israel is ready for a serious peace process with the Palestinians.
Thus, there is a choice for the U.S. administration, even in the final two years of George Bush's presidency. Bush can continue his hands-off approach to Arab-Israeli issues and confine himself to lofty policy statements about the desirability of a two-state solution. Or, Bush can invest presidential determination and time to jumpstart negotiations; lay out U.S. thinking on final status issues in a manner designed to provide the parties with an agenda for negotiations; and keep the parties focused on negotiating in good faith and implementing what they have agreed. Quite unexpectedly, the conditions for peace process activity are present. Now it is up to the U.S. to decide whether to test those conditions in an active, U.S.-sponsored process.