For years of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, it has become a cliché to state that the United States cannot want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
The statement appears to have been originated, or at least was popularized, by Secretary of State James Baker, who included it in his statement to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. It was repeated like a mantra through the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and even voiced by President Barack Obama in a 2010 interview when he said: "I think it was former Secretary of State Jim Baker who said, in the context of Middle East peace, we can't want it more than they do."
That proposition -- or more accurately its opposite -- is now being challenged and tested by Secretary of State John Kerry.
In his countless trips to the region and meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry has battled a pervasive skepticism on both sides. Even now, it's hard to find many analysts willing to give him more than a small chance of success. Although they credit him with getting further than expected, most veteran Middle East-watchers still expect him to fail.
The record of accomplishment of past Secretaries of State in Mideast diplomacy is mixed at best. There are two outstanding examples of success, Baker and Henry Kissinger -- and then a long litany of futility. Both Kissinger and Baker were able to build their successes on regional or global upheavals that created new opportunities. In Kissinger's case, it was the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that created an opening to negotiate the "Separation of Forces" agreements which helped pave the way for the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement.
In Baker's case, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 threw the Arab world into a panic and enabled him to create a broad coalition to expel the invaders. The military triumph that followed boosted U.S. prestige and Baker took full advantage to convene the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference in 1991 which for the first time brought Israeli leaders face-to-face with their Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian counterparts all in one room.
If we accept that Baker and Kissinger were both aided by regional upheavals, it is worth asking whether Kerry's efforts may be similarly helped by the current turmoil in Middle East where Syria is embroiled in a murderous civil war and Egypt consumed by internal dissension.
This may help Kerry. Syria, which has its own unresolved territorial issue with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights, is no longer in a position to veto the Palestinians moving forward without them. Moreover, the fact that Iran and its Hezbollah proxy have been drawn into the fighting on behalf of the Assad regime has perhaps acted to stabilize Israel's northern border with Lebanon, at least for a while. Hezbollah is in no position to seek military confrontation with Israel while also fighting in Syria. The loss of Syrian sponsorship has also weakened Hamas in Gaza -- as has the fall of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt and the rise of a military regime that seems very hostile to the organization and has destroyed many of the tunnels used to smuggle weapons and other material into Gaza.
The most significant regional change that may help Kerry is the rise of Iran and the threat it poses to the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the fast developing economies of the Gulf. Suddenly, these nations find common cause with Israel, especially because of their lack of confidence that the United States will be there for them at times of crisis. This helps explain Kerry's success in mobilizing Arab League support for his peace initiative.
So where does Kerry's effort stand right now? He is about to unveil a framework agreement that the parties, he hopes, will accept with some reservations. It will lay an agreed basis for the negotiations on all the outstanding issues -- borders, security, refugees, mutual recognition and Jerusalem. And it will extend the negotiations until the end of 2014.
It's a sound plan -- but it doesn't change the fact that Kerry is dealing with Netanyahu and Abbas, both cautious leaders intent on retaining power and not known for taking risks or making bold decisions. Moreover the process would require both to make concessions that would infuriate significant parts of their political base. For Netanyahu, it would mean giving up a significant part of the Biblical Land of Israel and uprooting settlements. For Abbas, it would mean relinquishing the Palestinian "right of return" so that refugees and their descendants could no longer dream of reclaiming their original homes.
Still, neither wants to be blamed for letting the talks fail. As a result, they may find themselves being pushed further down the track of negotiations. It's a high-stakes game and so far it's been an impressive performance. The remainder of 2014 will show if it is ultimately successful.
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