A Mediator’s Guide to the Middle East

Has Kerry learned from the failures of past U.S. mediation efforts Or is he repeating Washington's past mistakes?

At the Madrid Conference in 1991 Hanan Ashrawi complained that, while Israel was getting all the carrots, the Palestinians were getting all the sticks – that they alone were being subjected to dire predictions about the consequences of rejecting American proposals. Much has happened in the region since her grievance was aired, and key figures have come and gone; yet although the faces may have changed, the rhetoric and behavioral patterns of the actors in the conflict have remained virtually unaltered.

Madrid was, in fact, the last time that an agreement of any importance in the Israeli-Arab conflict was achieved through American mediation.

The question presents itself of why the more recent American administrations have failed where their predecessors succeeded. If we examine Secretary of State John Kerry’s mediation efforts in light of the factors that have caused American mediation to fail in the past, as well as the main parameters that influence the chances of success, we will be better able to determine whether the current efforts are repeating earlier mistakes, or whether Washington has learned the necessary lessons.

The main factors determining the success or failure of a mediation effort are:

Realistic strategy: A basic condition of successful American (and other) mediation is the prior formulation of a strategy that fully relates to the actual situation and to the positions of the parties to the conflict. One example of successful American strategy was Henry Kissinger’s “step by step” diplomacy in achieving the Israel-Egypt disengagement agreements in the mid-1970s. The first Obama administration, by contrast, had no strategy at all, merely a lengthy series of ineffectual tactics.

Impartial mediation: The “special relationship” and strategic partnership between the U.S. and Israel automatically put the Palestinians on the defensive and cause them to suspect covert coordination between the U.S. and Israel, at their expense. History proves they are not entirely mistaken. Aaron Miller, a Jewish former U.S. diplomat who was involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians in prior decades, notes that one of Washington’s major errors during the Clinton years was its negotiation team’s pro-Israeli orientation. At that time no one on the American side was representing the Palestinian perspective. This lack of balance, Miller maintains, became all too obvious when work began in earnest on a permanent solution.

Incentives and leverage: This issue is related to the previous one and to Ashrawi’s complaint. The main tools available to the American administration, which views peacemaking as an American national interest (in the manner of nearly all other recent administrations), are economic/political incentives, and leverage/sanctions aimed at advancing stalled negotiations. Even neophyte American politicians are aware that pressuring Israel carries a heavy political price, due to the Jewish lobby and the special relationship between the two countries. Few American presidents have been willing to pay that price. The courageous souls who subjected Israel to the full force of their pressure were President Carter at the Camp David talks in 1978, and Bush/Baker at the Madrid Conference. By contrast, presidents Clinton and Obama have capitulated at critical moments in the face of Israeli opposition. Perhaps Obama will display greater resolve during his second term. We will have to wait and see.

Recruiting support systems: American mediation can and should turn to other political entities for support and for pressuring the parties to the conflict. For example, moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states could provide the Palestinian leadership with the political and economic backing it needs to make difficult decisions. The countries of the region could offer Israel diplomatic relations and peace agreements. The European Union and the U.N. could help by providing economic incentives to the Palestinians or by pressuring Israel.

Confidence Building Measures: the actions that the parties are asked to take or to refrain from taking in order to advance negotiations have a major impact on the negotiations’ chances for success. However, these measures sometimes become ends in themselves, or actual obstacles to successful negotiations. This kind of situation is exemplified by the insistence of the Obama administration and the Palestinians that Israel freeze building in the settlements. The failure to resolve this issue dominated the mediation agenda, and the settlement freeze became an end rather than a means; worse, it was a barrier to progress in that the other side used it as an excuse to stay away from the negotiation table.

These basic do’s and don’ts for prospective Mideast mediators have to be served up with generous helpings of creativity, common sense, and knowledge of the history of the conflict. The business-like, pragmatic American approach to negotiation does not work particularly well in the Middle East, where conflicting narratives, a sense of “victimization” and deep fears about changing the status quo prevail. All of these things require extraordinary sensitivity on the part of the mediator. Not only that, but this conflict has been going on, at varying levels of intensity, for over a hundred years and it is not realistic to expect resolution within a hundred days. The keys to success are persistence, determination and patience.

And a final word to the American mediator: if the two sides lack a basic willingness to reach a solution, no external party – however powerful – can impose one on them. In such an instance, leave them the White House phone number and go home.

Dan Sagir, 58, is a doctoral student in the department of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching Israeli strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

AP