Second Time's the Charm?

Congratulations, John Kerry. You own the peace process now. Here's how not to screw it up.

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.

3. Make a friend out of Bibi

Given the dysfunctional state of the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Kerry has an opportunity to do two things. First, if he's the administration's point man on the peace process, he needs to build a relationship with Bibi. He can't move anywhere without one.

And second, Kerry can serve as something of a buffer to ease the neuralgia between the two. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis said the other day in a session at the Wilson Center, during the talks that led up to the Camp David Accords, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance played a critical role in courting Menachem Begin, even while Carter and the prime minister never did all that much business together before the summit itself. That tie between Vance and Begin -- together with the secretary's relationship with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan -- really paved the way for the peace deal. There will be plenty of time for Kerry to fight with Netanyahu if he can't find a way to cooperate.

4. Don't be breathless

Perhaps for understandable reasons, Obama came charging out of the gate with no strategy and no coherent set of tactics, equipped only with big ideas and soaring rhetoric. Middle East envoy, challenge on settlements, new sheriff in town, and so forth. The lackluster results were predictable.

Kerry already has signaled his interest in moving the peace process forward -- and that's precisely why he should slow it down. A big early start with nothing in his pocket doesn't make any sense. Indeed, reports that he wanted to visit Israel as part of a regional tour -- perhaps even before the Israeli elections -- made no sense.

What's the point? Kerry should wait until the next Israeli coalition government is formed, and then see what terms will be necessary to get it back to the negotiating table. Don't crowd anyone or anybody now -- how many exploratory, fact-finding trips can a secretary of state make before Israelis and Palestinians start seeing him as an empty suit, part of the furniture?

Unless Kerry is carrying something special -- maybe a message from the president inviting the parties to conduct bilateral discussions in Washington, or plans for a presidential visit to Israel --he should take a deep breath, relax, and play the long game. There will be plenty of trips to Israel before the end of his tenure.

I'm pretty confident Kerry won't make the same mistakes his boss did in 2009 and 2010. His real challenge now really doesn't involve the Palestinians and Israelis at all. It's trying to figure out what he's going to do about an imploding Syria, a nuclear Iran, and an increasingly unstable Egypt.

Oh, and one more thing. If Kerry wants to do anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he'll first need to persuade Obama to let him really own it.  That doesn't mean being the Lone Ranger of the peace process, but it does mean that he and his team will need to shape and sell their approach to the president, and not just implement a strategy designed by somebody else.

And who better to do this than Kerry? If Obama buys into his approach, he can be the envoy that works the issue, deploys the president as necessary, and in the end brings him in for the guts-and-glory phase. Whether the strategy is to manage the conflict or conclusively resolve it, it's a Kerry strategy. And that's what serious secretaries of state are supposed to do.

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Reality Check

Learning to Live with Bibi

Netanyahu's back, and Barack Obama needs to find a way to work with him this time around.

In the spring of 1996, with Israelis still mourning the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres locked in a tough race for prime minister with Benjamin Netanyahu, I quipped to my friend and colleague Dennis Ross in one of the worst political predictions of the modern era: There's no way Bibi can win this thing. He can't be prime minister of the state of Israel.

Seventeen years later, Netanyahu has now served for more years as Israeli prime minister than anyone other than David Ben Gurion, and though much weakened by this week's elections, is about to begin coalition negotiations toward an unprecedented third term.

But looking at the Israeli press this morning, you'd think that he's already toast. "'King Bibi,'" writes columnist Bradley Burston, "has managed to plummet to victory in a technical triumph that has every appearance of a debacle." Bibi's campaign failed, the inestimable Aluf Benn writes in Haaretz, because he had nothing much to say.

They're both right, of course. The election results in Israel were a clear defeat for the right, a non-victory for the left, a clear affirmation that there is a center in Israel, and an indication that many Israelis are indeed looking past Netanyahu for something new.

But it would be a mistake in 2013 -- just as it was in 1996 -- to write off Bibi or to conclude that Israeli politics are somehow on the verge of transformation. Remember: This is the topsy-turvy, volatile world of Israeli politics, where since independence there have been 32 governments, each lasting roughly 1.8 years. And this is a place where principles compete with the rough trade of street politics, coalition horse-trading, and downright meanness. And that is squarely in Netanyahu's wheelhouse. He knows how to survive in the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics. Indeed, in the curious interaction of domestic politics, national security, and, most importantly, the absence of charismatic leadership, there's still life left in King Bibi. And here's why.

1. The Arabs and Iran are still Bibi's best talking points

This wasn't an election about the peace process or Iran, which is why Bibi flopped, the rightist annexationist Naftali Bennett failed to meet the sky-high expectations placed on him, and why Yair Lapid, who focused on social and economic issues, fared so well.

But the security issue -- the matzav ("the situation" in Hebrew) -- is omnipresent. It's in that world where Netanyahu flourishes. And you can always count on the Arabs to offer up a lifeline.

Sure, Israeli behavior toward Palestinians on the West Bank is bad -- but compared to what? Israel's neighbors always seem to find a way to rescue the right these days. Take a look around. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad murders his own people; in Gaza, Hamas talks of pushing the Jews into the sea; in Egypt, President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood espouse the worst kind of anti-Semitic tropes; and in Iran, the mullahs can't seem to open their mouths these days without muttering something about the evil Zionists.

Nowhere is there an Arab or Muslim leader who is attractive or powerful enough to challenge the Israelis, gain a constituency among the Israeli public, or give the Obama administration enough leverage to present Israelis with a real choice on peace. And in this world, Netanyahu understandably thrives.

2. There's no peace process to fight over

As long as there's no real peace process that creates a real choice for most Israelis, Netanyahu will continue to have a key role. Sure, Lapid, a potential partner for Netanyahu's coalition, espouses two states. But like his famous father, Shinui party stalwart Tommy Lapid, he's tough on peace issues such as dividing Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

And in case you hadn't noticed, there is no peace process at the moment, a fact that neither Lapid nor the many other centrists emphasized in their campaigns. While Israelis are focused on domestic issues, the peace process has gone missing either because the security situation is too good (no suicide terror, Iron Dome.) or because the regional situation is too bad (a divided Palestinian leadership, an anti-Semitic Morsy, etc.)

Most likely, the kind of peace process that will emerge over the next year is one that Netanyahu can support -- a bottom-up approach with little focus on the identity issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, and maybe quiet discussions between Israelis and Palestinians on territory and security around which the prime minister can maneuver. But don't get your hopes up.

3. John Kerry needs a friend

We are going to have a new secretary of state who will have responsibility -- assuming he can convince the president to let him handle the issue -- for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. And the last thing Kerry wants is a worsening of ties between Netanyahu and Barack Obama that makes it impossible for him to do his job on such a key issue.

If Kerry wants to have a chance of succeeding -- even to manage the problem -- he'll need a relationship with Netanyahu based on some measure of confidence and trust. This is even more important given the absence of such trust between Obama and the prime minister.

George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir didn't get along. James Baker, Bush's hard-nosed secretary of state, managed to hammer out a working relationship with then Prime Minister Shamir -- tense at times but functional. Without it, there would have been no Madrid peace talks -- and without that, the Oslo talks would have been harder to produce. If Kerry is smart, he'll keep the door open to Netanyahu and try to hammer out at least a modus vivendi. Bibi, meanwhile, is going to try to build on his already positive relationship with Kerry.

4. American enablers

I'm also betting that the Obama team, bogged down as it is with so many other issues, won't get terribly creative on the peace process and will play to Netanyahu's strengths -- an interim, incremental, and bottom-up process that avoids the tough issues and steers clear of high-profile initiatives. Rather than try to undermine Netanyahu, a second-term president (even one with visions of being the father of Palestinian statehood) will likely play it safe and try to work with the new government. And who could blame him? Even if Obama decides to roll the dice, he needs an Arab or Palestinian partner to help him. And those are in very short supply.

5. Iran must be managed

There's another powerful reason Bibi will remain relevant: He's Mr. Iran. Even more than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or lack thereof, Iran will require cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem if an agreement on the nuclear issue is to be reached or successful military action undertaken.

Iran isn't Palestine, some localized shepherd's war even with regional resonance. The Iranian nuclear issue could have grave economic, military, financial, and political consequences for the entire Middle East and international community. The stakes are simply too high to accommodate huge policy differences or public rifts, let alone a breakdown in cooperation that compels the Israelis to take unilateral military action.

Many think this will be the year of decision with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue. Maybe yes; maybe no. Regardless, Obama and Netanyahu need to reach some kind of understanding -- first, on avoiding unilateral Israeli military action until the diplomatic effort has run its course; second, on what kind of negotiated solution the Israelis will accept; and third, if all of this fails, on what level of cooperation the two countries will engage in if military action is required. The new coalition -- if it's broad enough -- could either provide a foundation for military action against Iran or constrain it. But either way, Netanyahu will find himself in the middle of the mix with a critical role to play.


Netanyahu survives because Israel is confronting its own leadership crisis and is in the middle of an ongoing changing of the generational guard, from its founders to a generation of younger, less authoritative leaders. Ariel Sharon lies in a coma and while Shimon Peres is amazingly vibrant at 89, these two are the only historic figures that remain. A series of younger and less legitimate politicians -- Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni have tried to fill that vacuum and failed.

Whatever your views of Netanyahu -- unprincipled, visionless, all tactics at the expense of strategy -- he has not only survived but prospered in the dysfunctional, byzantine, and leaderless world of Israeli politics. Perhaps this election will be the beginning of the end of his run -- a triumph for a new Israeli politics based on moderation, democratic principles, and even a new approach to the Palestinians. We can always hope. But more likely for the time being, Bibi, while he's clearly down, is by no means out.

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