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Timely American wisdom

By Rami G. Khouri, The Jordan Times, 15.08.08

Few observers expect the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations between the governments of Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert to achieve any significant breakthrough during the remaining months of President George W. Bush’s term. One reason for the low expectations from the negotiations spawned by the Annapolis meeting in the United States last November is the low-key mediating role of the United States itself.
Ample experiences since the 1970s suggest that active external mediation is essential for success, due to low trust among the main protagonists and the need for foreign security guarantees and development aid that typically seal a peace deal in this region. Whatever happens in coming months, the stage is set for the next American administration to play an active role in Arab-Israeli peace-making - should it decide to do so.
The odds are that it will, for two key reasons: Arab-Israeli peace-making can impact positively and quickly on almost every other American national interest in the Middle East, and American abstinence from peace-making - as during the past eight years - contributes to aggravating multiple local conflicts and radicalising trends throughout the region.
If the next American administration takes the plunge, it will have a timely, honest and very practical handbook on which to draw for guidance. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has just published a compact but rich little book entitled Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East (USIP, 2008, 190 pp). It is the work of a study group of respected scholars and former officials who reviewed America’s involvement in Arab-Israeli peace-making during the last three administrations, covering the Bush-Clinton-Bush eras since 1990.
Headed by former ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer and USIP senior research associate Scott B. Lasensky, and including William Quandt, Steven Spiegel, and Shibley Telhami, the group interviewed some 150 officials and activists in the United States and the Middle East to assess their views of Washington’s role as a mediator since the end of the cold war. They identified “an alarming pattern of mismanaged diplomacy…both strategic and tactical… US involvement has been characterised by fits and starts, errors of omission and commission, and fundamental weaknesses in policy formulation and execution. Rhetoric all too often has replaced action…Opportunities were squandered, potential breakthroughs missed, and meaningful advances stalled unnecessarily.”
Noting that Arab-Israeli peace is a strategic American interest and that Washington’s direct involvement is indispensable for success, the study gives George H.W. Bush’s administration higher marks than the Clinton or George W. Bush teams. It then offers ten lessons learned that should be required reading for any American or other external mediator in the Middle East.
The most important ones are: US policy should be made in the United States, not in foreign countries (like Israel, it specifically said). The United States should take initiatives and not only respond to openings, and should transcend incrementalism and aim instead for an end-game, not shying away from offering its own proposals.
Washington should play a strong role as monitor of compliance with agreements reached. Policy should be made and implemented through a diverse and experienced negotiating team. Broad and bipartisan domestic support is needed for successful US policy-making but policy should not be “held captive to the agendas of domestic groups” (where the study group again pointed out examples of inordinate influence of pro-Israeli groups).
Special envoys are useful if they are credible with all parties, enjoy White House support, have a broad mandate and operate within a strategic diplomatic context (Dennis Ross was one of the envoys mentioned by name as not being seen as credible by all sides).
Washington should use its full diplomatic toolbox judiciously (summitry, economic aid, unofficial diplomacy, assurances and understandings), with strategic objectives in mind, and not only to buy time.
The report’s gently devastating critique of actual American performance is coupled with a call for US re-engagement, with several recommendations: the next US administration should make Arab-Israeli peace-making a high priority based on a strategy to end the conflict, by locking in the gains of the past while balancing bilateral with multilateral efforts, using non-traditional diplomacy, and reassessing the utility of existing mechanisms such as the Quartet.
A final note addresses the “fact of life” that “Israel plays an outsized role in US politics and diplomacy.” The challenge is how to use the US-Israeli special relationship to promote peace for all by crafting a “fair and effective US role”, rather than diminishing that special relationship.
The report calls on the next administration to use experts who are as familiar with Arab societies as they are with Israel, so as to “restore the US role to its historical purpose of helping the parties to achieve their core requirements.”
The USIP should be commended for this study that reflects the best American tradition of honest self-assessment anchored in facts, rather than partisan ideology. The next administration would do well to read it and ponder its recommendations seriously.