Mr. President, Don’t Pray for Anything You Really Don’t Want

Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians could be a political trap for Obama.

Barack Obama's administration has been lobbying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab governments hard to return to direct talks with Israel for the first time in several years. That decision could be made as early as Thursday, when the Arab League meets to discuss the matter. But Obama should very careful what he wishes for.

One of the most enduring myths in the lore surrounding Arab-Israeli diplomacy is that direct negotiations provide the key to successful peacemaking.

They don't.

The actual history of negotiations tells a far different story. Direct talks are often necessary, but have never been sufficient to ensure success. And Benjamin Netanyahu's government, together with the Obama administration, should stop raising expectations and deluding themselves and the rest of us into thinking otherwise.

Israelis and Palestinians will certainly have to negotiate directly and own their peace process, but even with a strong American role -- one that is well thought through and well-timed -- the odds against a conflict-ending accord remain long indeed. The Obama administration should be very careful that in its hurry to get direct talks going, it doesn't spark an Israeli-Palestinian crisis that makes that fact all too painfully clear.

On first glance, the logic of direct negotiations is powerful, if not unassailable. Only through face-to-face talks can trust and confidence be built, problems solved, and decisions made by each side on what price it is willing to pay for an agreement. This is especially true for Israelis and Palestinians when the issues on the table -- Jerusalem, borders, and refugees -- cut to the core of their respective political identities and physical security. The very nature of directness suggests an intimacy and reassurance that is critical to persuading each side that the other is serious.

The only problem with this argument is that there is scant evidence to support it in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Every successful agreement that has endured -- save one -- came not as a result of sustained direct talks but from heavy-duty U.S. mediation. In fact, in each of the three breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking -- Henry Kissinger's disengagement agreements following the October 1973 war (1973-75); Jimmy Carter's Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty (1979); and George H.W. Bush's and James Baker's Madrid Peace Conference (1991), there were no sustained direct talks at all. The United States brokered, shuttled, and mediated between the sides.

The only example of direct negotiations actually producing a lasting agreement was the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (1994) -- and here, circumstances were so unusual, the level of Israeli-Jordanian contacts and confidence so deep, and the issues on the table so much more tractable than the ones we face today, that it was truly the exception to the rule.

The cruel irony, of course, is that the poster child for direct talks -- the 1993 Oslo process, in which Israelis and Palestinians did everything themselves -- collapsed in a wave of violence, bitterness, and mutual recrimination, partly because there was no third party to help them solve their problems. By the time the United States got involved in the Oslo negotiations, the process was already on life support and soon to expire.

Fast-forward to today. Against this background and given the huge gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on the core issues, the urgency for direct talks is indeed curious. Israel's interest in direct negotiations is perhaps understandable. As the stronger party, the Israelis would like to edge the Americans out and try to deal directly with the Palestinians without a babysitter. Whether or not the Netanyahu government is prepared to deal seriously with the Palestinians, this has always been the preferred Israeli approach.

Obama's interest is another matter. Does the president really believe that putting these two sides together now will lead to progress, or to an agreement on the tough issues like Jerusalem? Direct talks may, of course, provide Netanyahu with cover to renew the moratorium on settlement activity when it expires late September. Still, direct negotiations will sooner rather than later lead to an impasse and an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, particularly if Israel continues its unilateral actions on the ground, particularly in Jerusalem.

The only conceivable purpose of direct talks now would be to provide clarity. And clarity when you can't reach a deal is not always a good thing. These discussions are bound to expose just how large the gaps are between Israel and the Palestinians, and who is serious about actually reaching an agreement and who isn't. It will also challenge Obama to show just how serious he is about Israeli-Palestinian peace. Does the president really want such a moment of truth this fall, when neither side is prepared to pay the price for an accord, when he has so much else on his plate, and the November midterm elections will create additional problems?

The arc of this peace process was always going to end with American ideas or even a U.S. plan. Weak leaders, big gaps, and painful decisions all but ensured it. There are no Anwar Sadats, Yitzhak Rabins, or King Husseins -- far-sighted leaders of stature who can take bold steps to rescue the peace process and make matters easier for the American mediator. And it's arguable whether an American president, no matter how transformative he thinks he is, can compensate with his own urgency and leadership if it doesn't exist in the region. Still, Obama wants a solution: He pushed hard for a negotiating process from the beginning of his presidency, and now he'll have to assume even greater responsibility and deliver -- at a minimum with bridging proposals or even a U.S. initiative on the core issues -- if direct talks don't produce.

Direct negotiations? Don't pray for anything you really don't want, Mr. President. But if you really want them, get ready; the time to earn your Nobel Peace Prize may be right around the corner.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Why Kosovar Independence Is Good For Serbia

Thursday’s court ruling could be a blessing in disguise for the Serbs.

Hashim Thaci had a very good day. The former rebel commander and current prime minister of Kosovo heard today that his country's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal. The International Court of Justice in The Hague, the most established world judicial institution, released its long-awaited ruling this morning, and the prime minister and his entourage watched the announcement live from Washington. At several points, according to a minister who was present, they broke into applause. More than a decade after NATO bombs released the mainly Albanian province from Serbia's grip, Kosovo is finally emerging from the legal limbo of being a United Nations protectorate guarded by NATO.

This afternoon, Thaci and his ministers celebrated the decision in the crowded lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. With security guards hovering nearby, they exchanged handshakes, took congratulatory calls, and checked in with officials monitoring the reaction at home. NATO peacekeepers had geared up for violence in the Serb-dominated areas of the province, but reports indicated that the decision was received calmly in Serb areas.

Thaci's presence in Washington at this key moment was no accident.

While his ministers had some business to conduct at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the prime minister clearly relished being in the capital of his strongest backer when the ruling came down and the world's eyes moved, however briefly, to his corner of the Balkans. He met yesterday with Vice President Joe Biden and attended a prayer breakfast this morning with Kosovo supporters on Capitol Hill.

The court's 10-4 ruling that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law was a rare moment of intense scrutiny for the sleepy international court in The Hague, which some observers believe is fading into irrelevance. Few countries still accept the court's jurisdiction in all cases. Its caseload is relatively light, and its primacy is being challenged by sleek new institutions like the International Criminal Court and the World Trade Organization, which has its own system for adjudicating trade disputes. Those cases the ICJ does get its hands on often sit for years before a final decision. The Bosnian suit alleging that Serbia had committed genocide stayed on the court's docket for 13 years before being resolved. Sprightly the ICJ is not, and it was fitting that the court's website crashed under the pressure of the hits it received today.

There was less at stake in the ICJ decision than it seemed. Kosovo is effectively independent, and no court decision was going to change that (the ruling was an advisory opinion without binding legal force, in any case). For all its anger, Serbia has no appetite to physically challenge Kosovo's status. NATO troops still walk the beat in the disputed province, and Serbia has ambitions of joining the European Union, which would frown severely at any aggressive moves. In fact, most Serbian politicians probably breathed a quiet sigh of relief today. A decision questioning Kosovo's independence would have forced them into a nationalist posture; now they will be able to move past an issue that's been a continuing obstacle to joining the EU.

The decision mattered most in the recognition game. While more than 60 countries have recognized Kosovo, many were sitting on the fence, awaiting the ICJ's decision. Today's ruling will likely push many of them to forge relations with Kosovo, a development that will simplify its diplomatic, trade, and economic relations. "No country now has any reason not to recognize Kosovo," Thaci told me today. Nearby, his finance minister theatrically checked his email to see whether any recognition announcements had arrived.

The major question now is what effect the decision will have on those inclined to secessionism around the world. In their public statements before the court ruling, Serbia and its ally Russia often conjured up a parade of horribles that began with recognition of Kosovo's independence and ended in a global frenzy of state fragmentation. That fear was always exaggerated, but the Kosovo decision might embolden a few separatists.

They would be wise not to push their luck. As Thaci's presence in Washington attests, it was superpower brawn and not the force of international law that turned a rebel commander into a prime minister. Rebels without similarly strong friends will have less luck, whatever the judges in The Hague say.