U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last month. After Kerry’s intense diplomatic push, Israel and the Palestinians have tentatively agreed to resume peace talks. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
July 25, 2013

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He served as a Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state from 1978 to 2003.

Having analyzed and worked on the Arab-Israeli peace process for more than 40 years, my initial reaction to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s success in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume talks was predictably negative: He may get them to the negotiating table, but he cannot keep them there, let alone reach an agreement.

After all, the last time I had a role in this movie — the historic Camp David summit of July 2000 — the circumstances seemed much more propitious than they do now. The cast of characters included an Israeli prime minister who risked more on the big issues than any of his predecessors had, a Palestinian leader who presided over a unified national movement and had the respect of his people, and a committed U.S. president who really cared about the issue. Yet the effort failed, triggering the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in half a century.

This time around, the situation looks even tougher. The gaps between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the core sticking points — such as the fate of Jerusalem and what to do about Palestinian refugees — are galactic. The two leaders don’t trust each other very much and face ferocious domestic politics that prevent them from taking major risks.

So what’s going on here? Why does a smart, savvy U.S. secretary of state with many other burning priorities think he can do what none of his predecessors have done? Is this ego, delusion or just another example of an American administration naively believing that it can broker an end to a historic conflict — much as the George W. Bush administration believed it could transform nations?

Kerry’s peace process could easily implode. But here are five factors that might explain the secretary’s willingness to defy the odds — and why we shouldn’t discount his efforts just yet.

Chaos everywhere else

The Arab awakening may produce democracies over time, but the struggles among Islamists, military forces, elements of old regimes and unorganized liberal movements have so far produced sectarian conflict and bad governance. Syria is convulsing in civil war, Egypt is mired in political dysfunction, and Iraq is wracked by too much violence and not enough democracy.

Yet the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is strangely quiet. No Arab Spring here. Kerry is criticized for focusing on a localized conflict while much of the Middle East unravels. But compared with the risk-to-reward ratio of intervening in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers a safer, and perhaps smarter, bet. Indeed, it’s the one issue in the region where U.S. interests and values coincide with something else: the possibility that U.S. diplomacy might actually make a difference.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is surely not the key to a stable Middle East. But if serious progress were made, and even a partial agreement reached, it would significantly improve America’s image, help protect its interests, defuse a terrible predicament for Israel and facilitate a Palestinian state for an aggrieved people who have suffered without one for far too long.

The Arab states

Kerry has learned an important lesson from previous U.S. peace efforts: You need the Arab states to help the Palestinians make concessions and reach out to the Israelis.

At the 2000 Camp David summit, we never had a serious plan to engage the Arab states. Far too late in the game, President Bill Clinton tried to sell to a clueless Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia the details of what Israel and the United States were offering on Jerusalem. That offer fell short, but no compromise will ever work without Arab states’ support much earlier in the process.

Kerry believes he has something going with the Arabs, and if he invests early he can marshal Arab state support on a practical and symbolic level. He’s already secured a general Arab League endorsement for territorial land swaps, in which Israel would retain West Bank land to absorb key settlements in exchange for ceding other land to the Palestinian state. And recently in Amman, Jordan, he got the Arabs again to issue a statement backing the resumption of peace negotiations.

With Syria offline because of its civil war, Iran’s peace-process meddling constrained by its rift with Hamas and the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt, the traditional spoilers don’t seem as empowered as in the past. Egypt may actually be moving away from Hamas, back to Abbas. The Egyptian military has been closing many of the tunnels through which Hamas smuggles weapons, construction supplies and other goods into Gaza.

Whether the Arabs stay in the game will depend on how much active mediation the United States is prepared to do, particularly when it comes to pressing the Israelis.

Kerry the Energizer bunny

Kerry has been the driving force in these recent talks. He’s taken six trips related to the peace process in four months, has willfully disregarded the experts and the conventional wisdom that the peace process is dead, and has put himself and his credibility on the line by pushing so hard for these negotiations — rare for any secretary of state. He may believe to a fault, as President Clinton did, that the force of his personality and his relationships with Netanyahu and Abbas can somehow will an agreement.

Kerry has long believed that Israeli-Palestinian peace is an important U.S. interest. He also knows that becoming a truly consequential secretary of state depends on owning and fixing a tough issue. He’s more risk-ready than his predecessor, whose political career is still ascending. And with Obama burdened by so many domestic and Middle East headaches, the president has had no choice but to give his top diplomat more leeway to try to manage one of the biggest.

But this isn’t one hand clapping. Kerry has had help from Netanyahu and Abbas, both of whom worry about what might happen on the ground — and about being blamed personally — if the effort collapses. More important, Netanyahu may have signaled to Kerry that he’s willing to consider negotiations based on June 1967 borders with territorial swaps. And Abbas may have expressed a willingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Neither leader will say it publicly or to one another. But in Kabuki-like fashion, they might allow Kerry to announce these things as a U.S. basis for negotiations.

The U.S.-Israeli reset

Kerry would not have come this close to getting negotiations going without a broader reset in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as well as his efforts to strengthen his relationship with Netanyahu. When Obama visited Israel this year to defuse the perception that he was unfriendly to that nation, the decision may have been a generic one. The friction with Israel was hurting him politically; if the Iranian nuclear issue was to be managed, he needed a better rapport with Netanyahu.

But Kerry’s cultivation of Netanyahu has also been driven by the fact that getting Israel to make tough decisions requires not only vinegar but honey. More than that, Kerry understands and can relate to Netanyahu as a politician, much in the way Clinton did. If in fact Kerry has managed to extract — even privately — an aquiescence to June 1967 borders from a Likud prime minister as a working parameter for negotiations, and not just as a tactical talking point, he’s already succeeded.

The new Bibi?

Sometimes Netanyahu seems like a leader at war with himself: The tough-talking Likud pol is in conflict with the man who seeks to lead Israel out of the shadow of the Iranian bomb and make peace with its neighbors. In his expansive career, the pull of the tribe has consistently won out over that of the visionary, bold leader.

But is Netanyahu changing — or capable of changing? Lately, quite uncharacteristically, he has been talking like someone unhappy with the status quo. Reacting to Kerry’s announcement, he issued a statement that described the peace process as a way to prevent the emergence of a binational state that might threaten the future of Israel as a Jewish nation. In the past, Netanyahu rarely even feigned urgency about the peace process or cited demographics in the context of peace talks. His commitment to the release of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, and whatever pledges he may have made to Kerry on borders, may reflect a new seriousness.

Netanyahu is the consummate tactician and maneuverer, so it’s possible that Kerry is misreading the prime minister’s motives. Keeping the Americans happy on the peace process could help Washington swallow an Israeli attack on Iran, should it become necessary. And Netanyahu may be counting on the Palestinians to screw things up by rebuffing his demands on security and refugees, positions he knows the United States is likely to support.

But the further he goes down the road of negotiations, the greater the chance that some in his Likud party and his right-wing coalition partners will bolt from his government. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon left Likud in 2005 to form his own party after his withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Peacemaking in Israel isn’t the history of the left but of transformed hawks — leaders such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Sharon who took risks with their Arab neighbors. Is Netanyahu next in line? Clearly, Kerry isn’t ruling it out.

The odds are very much against a conflict-ending accord. Still, we shouldn’t prejudge Kerry’s effort. He has proved pretty willful and skillful so far. And perhaps there is enough that’s new on the ground to make progress toward a deal on borders and security a bet worth making.

I say this knowing full well that failure can have very negative consequences. But then again, so can inaction.

aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org

More from Aaron David Miller in Outlook:

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.

Five myths about Chuck Hagel

Five myths about the presidency

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