Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were part of nine months of talks over the prospect of a Palestinian state. (Brendan Smialowski/Associated Press)
May 23

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has served as a Middle East adviser for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He is the author of the forthcoming “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.”

John Kerry’s recent failed effort to get the Israelis and the Palestinians closer to a peace agreement shows what happens when you see the world the way you want it to be rather than the way it really is.

The good news is that the negotiations wouldn’t have started without Kerry. But that’s the bad news, too. He wanted talks far more than the Israelis and the Palestinians did. The secretary of state fell into one of the classic traps of negotiation and mediation: He became convinced of his own indispensability and centrality to the process — and badly exaggerated his ability to achieve a breakthrough.

I’ve worked for several of his predecessors, and never have I encountered a more self-confident secretary of state. Willful, relentless and a true believer in a two-state solution, Kerry miscalculated his role in three ways: He thought it was his time; it wasn’t. He thought he had the persuasive skills to pull it off; he didn’t. And he thought that this was his last chance; it wasn’t that, either.

The timing

Kerry’s timing did seem fortuitous. President Obama, in his second term and determined to focus on his domestic legacy, had to delegate more of his foreign policy decisions, not dominate them, as he had with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And there were many international headaches that required managing, including Russia, Iran and Syria, which became a much bigger crisis in Obama’s second term.

Yet, while this might have been Kerry’s moment, it wasn’t Benjamin Netanyahu’s nor Mahmoud Abbas’s, at least not for peacemaking. That the first phase of these negotiations, the direct meetings between the two sides, couldn’t get traction might have set off alarm bells for a less-confident diplomat. An Israeli prime minister preoccupied with Iran and never imagining himself to be the father of Palestinian statehood would not or could not make the decisions on the core sticking points — such as borders and how to divide Jerusalem — required for an agreement. Abbas, trapped in a rigid Palestinian consensus on those same questions and profoundly mistrustful of Netanyahu, wouldn’t oblige Kerry, either.

Without enough urgency to do a deal, the talks became Kerry’s process far more than one fashioned and owned by Israel and the Palestinians. Nor was Obama all that seized with the matter, either — and a secretary needs a president’s total support to succeed. By the spring, the Kerry effort devolved into an attempt just to keep the talks going. And in the end, he couldn’t do even that.

The skills

Kerry’s conviction that this was his moment invariably led him to believe too much in his own skills. By all accounts, he was a one-man show. Having served in the Senate and dealt with the Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians for years, Kerry rightly fashioned himself an expert on these matters. His capacity to listen, according to those who know him well, is legendary. But he soon became his own best analyst and policymaker, surrounding himself with former Senate staffers and aides who were not going to challenge their strong-willed boss.

I’ve been told by those familiar with the recent talks that Kerry had little use for experts and no use for skeptics. James Baker would let his advisers argue with one another; so would Madeleine Albright. They’d take what was useful and discard the rest. Kerry dove into the substance with a fervor and certainty the peace process hadn’t seen since Jimmy Carter. Too much analysis, he seemed to believe, led to paralysis. The only way around this was to ignore the doubters, deal directly with the leaders and push them relentlessly on his agenda. This risk-readiness might have paid off if Kerry had Israeli and Palestinian partners willing and able to take risks,too.

With the exception of Henry Kissinger, who had the 1973 war to motivate him, none of Kerry’s predecessors who worked this process — George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton — were that willing to plunge ahead and risk their reputations, political capital and credibility. They were quite skeptical and very often uncertain about how to proceed, and they depended to varying degrees on a small circle of advisers for analysis and recommendations.

These reality checks could be constraining. But they also kept U.S. diplomacy grounded. Even Baker, who scored a major success with the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, wouldn’t travel to the region during his first two years as secretary because he knew he had no chance of getting anywhere close to an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. And several of these secretaries of state had far more to work with than Kerry did: Israelis and Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians who were prepared to make serious sacrifices, some who were even ready to reach an agreement.

We don’t know what assurances Kerry received from Netanyahu and Abbas on the borders of a Palestinian state, whether it would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, how to handle Palestinian refugees. or whether he was getting the sides closer to a zone of agreement. Kerry managed to keep the leaders publicly silent when it came to the substance. I’ve been told two stories by people who were in a position to know: first, that the leaders came far on substance, and conversely, that there wasn’t really much there.

One thing we do know: After nine months of intensive effort, the process devolved from an attempt to reach a comprehensive deal on borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem, to discussions of a more general framework agreement, to a losing fight over a mere extension of the talks.

All mediators need to believe in themselves. But it’s possible to lose perspective, believe too deeply and think about negotiations largely in terms of personalities and personal relationships. And perhaps with the best of intentions, Kerry got lost in a “can do” mind-set when the leaders and negotiators were saying, “Oh, no you won’t.”

As a mediator, you spend hundreds of hours with these leaders while in negotiations. They encourage you by seeming willing to consider fixes and compromises that appear new and potentially historic, even on the most sensitive issues. They pledge not to reveal what they’ve heard, through you, from the other side. And you think that somehow your personal ties can move a leader on a specific issue. So you are tempted to believe that you can deliver something that none of your predecessors have. Quite understandably, you tend to diminish other factors more important to the deal than your persuasive skills — namely domestic politics and national interest. Indeed, you forget the thought attributed to Charles de Gaulle, that cemeteries are filled with indispensable people.

I saw this happen to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators during secret talks in Sweden in May 2000, and to Bill Clinton after his masterful success with Netanyahu and Yasser Arafatat the Wye River peace summit in October 1998. The president emerged from that meeting having impressed the Israelis, the Palestinians, himself and the rest of us with his formidable personal and negotiating skills. The Palestinians were amazed that he could rattle off the names and affiliations of their prisoners held in Israeli jails. And the Israelis were impressed with his commitment to their security and his willingness to use the CIA to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. One factor in the decision to convene the Camp David Summit in July 2000 — this time with a risk-averse Arafat and a more risk-ready Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak— was Clinton’s conviction that he could bring these two together by virtue of his persuasive power. We had no real strategy at Camp David other than Clinton as our secret weapon. Not surprisingly, it was insufficient. And so was Kerry’s confidence in his ability to persuade the Israelis and the Palestinians to make decisions they didn’t want to make.

The opportunity

Kerry’s faith and conviction created a last-chance trope that was counterproductive. Like the ghost of Christmas future in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Kerry told the world that if there were no two-state solution, calamity would follow. He warned of a third intifada, an end to Israel as a Jewish state, international boycotts, and even Israel emerging as an apartheid state.

The future without a two-state solution is grim, no doubt. But the question is not whether Kerry believes that; it’s whether the two sides do. Kerry cannot scare Israeli and Palestinian leaders into doing things they don’t want to do. And this approach is an empty demonstration of American resolve and power, particularly if it’s not backed up by the White House.

Nor is this, as Kerry has maintained, the last chance for Middle East peace. That reflects a certain narcissism and lack of perspective. If this really is the final chance, then the question for the president and his talented secretary of state is: Why not make this the focus of your foreign policy and do everything you can — risk it all — to bring about an agreement? The answer seems pretty obvious.

When the Kerry peace process does resume, as it surely will, the United States needs to get the two sides to own it as least as much as Washington does — and to heed the words of another Frenchman, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who cautioned diplomats everywhere: Above all, not too much zeal.

aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org

More from Aaron David Miller in Outlook:

What makes John Kerry think he can secure peace in Israel?

Why John Kerry could be a better secretary of state than Hillary Clinton

One trip won’t fix things between Obama and Netanyahu. Here’s what might.

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