Knowing How to Intervene

The United States wants to show more involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena after the presidential elections, with the friendly encouragement of the Europeans and the Arabs.

As of today, Middle East diplomacy is about to change. The United States wants to show more involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena after the presidential elections, with the friendly encouragement of the Europeans and the Arabs. Even Jerusalem is bracing for an intensification of activity, especially if Yasser Arafat is no longer the ruler of the Palestinian Authority.

Still, good intentions are not enough. It's essential to know how to intervene and how not to intervene. The lessons of the previous decade of American mediation show that hyperactivity is not a miracle drug. Overdone, it can be harmful, as the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 demonstrated. The unfounded expectations for a lightning end to the conflict, and the failure that stemmed from them, thrust the Israelis and the Palestinians into war. It can be argued that then-president Bill Clinton was only the host, so it wasn't his fault; but just as a Nobel Peace Prize awaited him if he had succeeded, so he must also share the responsibility for the failure.

"Intensifying American involvement" usually takes the form of highly publicized junkets by the secretary of state or a presidential emissary and spectacular summit meetings. The high-level mandate of the guest from America is supposed to make a dent in the stubbornness of the sides and extract concessions from them. This approach peaked in the shuttle diplomacy of James Baker, the secretary of state, in 1991, which preceded the Madrid peace conference. That tremendous effort paid off, but the content was meager - the conference dealt with procedure rather than substance.

The Clinton administration, which took office at the beginning of 1993, liked public diplomacy, and the president himself visited Damascus, Jerusalem and Gaza to accelerate the process, even before Camp David. He failed in the Syrian channel. Clinton dragged Benjamin Netanyahu, who became prime minister in 1996, into the Wye agreement, which was implemented in part and led to the fall of the Likud government. Afterward, Clinton made Ehud Barak, the Labor prime minister, carry out the rest. In the meantime, building in the settlements went on more intensively than ever, with the Americans looking the other way.

George W. Bush imitated his predecessors by sending emissaries and by convening the Aqaba summit in June 2003. It was an impressive production. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), declaimed the texts they received from the White House. One promised a contiguous Palestinian state and the other condemned terrorism in Hebrew. Only the result came to nothing. Terrorism is still with us, and where is the Palestinian state?

Talks between leaders photograph well. Their practical value is limited. Arafat was the wizard of empty words, and Israeli leaders, too, are adept in showering their interlocutors with empty promises. Both sides are expert at demonstrating weakness. The Palestinians maintain that they are unable to fight terrorism, and Sharon is not evacuating the settler outposts because of domestic problems. Israel prefers to defer unpopular moves until the "big bang." Just as Barak wanted to skip the Wye agreement "because the final-status solution is approaching," Sharon wants the outposts left alone until the big withdrawal from Gaza. True, his disengagement plan obligates a confrontation with the settlers, but in his view this is a diplomatic preemptive strike, which will thwart renewed discussion and far more pain in the final-status accord.

The Bush administration understood the pointlessness of vacuous declarations and instead gave the sides tests of action and supervised them. The approach was correct, the implementation wretched. When Abu Mazen went down, the Americans collected the team of supervisors and disappeared. The administration, encountering troubles in Iraq and facing a tough election campaign at home, didn't have staying power. If the United States wants to exert influence, it had better get its act together first.

Making things happen on the ground is far more important than another speech or photo-op. Renewed involvement will have value only if the Americans present practical demands to the sides and show credibility and determination in enforcement. Otherwise, time will again be wasted in diplomatic foot-dragging, which may not exacerbate the confrontation but will certainly not bring about its resolution.