The good thing about being a U.S. secretary of state in a president's second term is that you have a chance to learn from the mistakes of the first. And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Barack Obama made some doozies.
Let's be clear. The president is not the reason Israelis and Palestinians did not join hands for peace at a triumphant Camp David summit. The dysfunctional local actors have to answer the mail on that one. But the president committed four stumble bumbles that made an already bad situation worse.
I'm betting that Secretary of State John Kerry -- reportedly very keen on the peace process -- won't make the same mistakes. He may indeed make others, but steering clear of these will at least give him a better start than his boss had last time round.
1. No special envoy
Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone and text, and consequential secretaries of state take on the Arab-Israeli issue. They don't subcontract it out to former presidents, or would-be secretaries of state. (See: Bill Clinton, George Mitchell.)
Special envoys sow bureaucratic confusion and dilute the secretary's authority. And in the case of Mitchell, whom Obama appointed as his special envoy for Middle East peace and then never truly empowered, they confuse the Arabs and Israelis, providing opportunities for all kinds of mischief.
In the end, it's the secretary of state who sets up the deal -- and that person will become the natural repository of the confidence, anger, and trust of the Israelis and Palestinians. The secretary deploys the president when a breakthrough is needed, and of course positions him to close the deal at the crucial moment.
If the White House lets him, that will be John Kerry's responsibility. It shouldn't be delegated to an envoy.
2. No public fight on a settlements freeze
Obama made three mistakes on settlements: He pushed for a freeze that he could never deliver, failed to tie concessions from Israel to a serious strategy, and then backed down when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought back, thereby undermining U.S. credibility with both sides.
Kerry is smarter than that. He understands how harmful settlements are, but won't push the Israelis into a corner or wage a public fight. He also stands to be luckier than Obama in his first term because, given the result of Israel's election, the next government in Jerusalem is likely to contain more centrist elements than its predecessor. That means it may well tone down the settlements push, and certainly will avoid radioactive projects like building in the E-1 area near Jerusalem.
Settlements will remain a problem, but Kerry is wise enough to understand that fighting the big fight on this issue is the key to an empty room. The issue needs to be part of a broader deal. I suspect the White House knows this now too.