So You Want to Be a Peacemaker?

Here are 11 lessons to keep in mind if you want to have any hope of solving the Middle East's most intractable conflict.

President Barack Obama is trying his luck in the Holy Land this week. He is holding meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah. Clearly Middle East peacemaking is on the agenda -- though nobody is expecting much progress, let alone a breakthrough.

Still, the U.S. president is a determined man. I suspect that one way or another -- before all the sand runs out of the presidential hourglass -- he'll try to leave his mark on the peace process, most likely by laying out a series of parameters that will define how to resolve the conflict's core issues.

The world of negotiations did not begin with the Obama administration. History's lessons are still important -- they won't guarantee success, but ignoring them will almost certainly produce failure.

As the president (and his able secretary of state) consider what they might want to do about the knotty problem of the much-too promised land, here are 11 facts to keep in mind.

1. Presidential visits aren't a given: Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, only four U.S. presidents (out of 11) have visited while in office: Richard Nixon (once), Jimmy Carter (once), Bill Clinton (four times), and George W. Bush (twice). And with the exception of Carter -- who took a real risk in February and March 1979 by traveling to Egypt and Israel to nail down the terms of a peace treaty -- the other trips were far less consequential.

Nixon's trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration's deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed. The visit was a strange affair, maybe an escape from the raging Watergate scandal: At one point, while discussing terrorism with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Nixon jumped up, exclaiming that there was only one way to deal with terror and sprayed the assembled cabinet ministers with imaginary machine-gun fire, Chicago gangland style.

Clinton, who was identified with and committed to the Oslo peace process, went to mark the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994, again in 1995 to attend Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, in 1996 to try to keep the peace process alive in the wake of Rabin's assassination and Hamas terror attacks, and finally to address the Palestinian National Council in 1998. Of Bush's two trips, one of them was to participate in a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, which had no chance of producing any meaningful agreement -- or even a credible way forward.

Lesson: Anyone who expects the president to achieve big things on this foray - or is pushing the president to try -- isn't thinking clearly.

2. We fail more often than we succeed in the Holy Land: In 50 years of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, only three Americans -- two Republican secretaries of state and a Democratic president -- have managed to successfully broker agreements that had any lasting impact.

Following the 1973 war, Nixon's diplomatic wingman, Henry Kissinger, managed to negotiate three interim disengagement agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Syria. The final agreement, signed on June 1, 1974, still governs arrangements between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights. 

Carter brokered both a framework for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and one for a Middle East peace involving Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David in September 1978. The former resulted in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which was signed at the White House in March 1979. The latter, which envisioned full autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, failed -- partly because there were no Palestinians involved in the negotiation process.

Secretary of State James Baker, finally, put together a diplomatic framework that enabled Israelis, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and a delegation from the Arab Gulf states to attend a three-day conference in Madrid in October 1991. Madrid itself produced no breakthrough agreement, but it lent cover to the secret talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Oslo, laid the basis for a future Israeli-Jordanian agreement, and broke some important taboos regarding direct negotiations.

Lesson: Success in this enterprise is rare. It requires luck and a mediator that knows what he or she is doing. Those who think America can impose its wishes at will are living on some other planet.

3. The parties on the ground have to want a deal: With the exception of the Madrid process, all the Arab-Israeli breakthroughs were launched secretly by the parties themselves -- with no U.S. involvement. 

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977 would not have been possible without the secret confidence-building contacts between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tuhami. Oslo's Declaration of Principles, signed in 1993, was negotiated secretly with the help of the Norwegians. And the Israelis and Jordanians, who had carried on quiet diplomacy for most of the last century, called on their old contacts to set up their peace treaty negotiations. In each case, the United States was purposely excluded in the initial phase.

Lesson: If the parties aren't invested in the negotiations, you can hang a "closed for the season" sign on the peace process.

4. But there also has to be a U.S. role: Direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians played a critical role in the Oslo process, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and the beginnings of the Egyptian-Israeli process. But in the Kissinger, Carter, and Baker diplomacy, the U.S. role as a third party broker proved more important.

This was particularly evident in the talks that culminated in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Carter purposely kept Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat apart at Camp David and shuttled between the two sides, though Egyptian and Israeli negotiators played key roles.

Lesson: We might wish it were otherwise, but the locals can't get there by themselves.

5. Be realistic: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were not "this close" -- thumb and forefinger an eighth of an inch apart -- at the July 2000 Camp David Summit. On none of the core issues -- territory, refugees, Jerusalem, even security -- were the gaps fundamentally narrowed.

It is true that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put positions on the table that went farther than any premier had ever gone. But the fairy tale that we were "this close" to a deal emerged largely to justify Israeli concessions and hammer the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat's transgression was that he didn't empower his negotiators -- several of whom were more flexible than him -- not that he refused to sign on to an agreement made in heaven for Palestinians.

What the American side (myself included) refused to accept -- or didn't understand in the first place -- was that Oslo was the last concession Arafat was prepared to make. When it came to territory, Palestinians -- like the Egyptians and Syrians before them -- needed something that added up to 100 percent. Sadat got 100 percent of Sinai and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad wanted 100 percent of the Golan Heights plus access to the Sea of Galilee, after all. While Palestinians are prepared to allow the Israelis to retain a tiny part of the West Bank, they will need to be compensated with territorial swaps of equal size and perhaps value.

Lesson: The parties have enough self-created mythologies and illusions. The United States doesn't need to create new ones.

6. Fighting with the Israelis (and the Arabs too) is part of the job description: Pressuring both sides is an unavoidable part of serious and successful diplomacy. The question is whether the fights are productive or gratuitous.

A fight that produces an actual agreement that benefits all parties is good. With President Gerald Ford's blessing, Kissinger threatened a reassessment of U.S.-Israeli relations if Rabin didn't become more flexible on the second Sinai disengagement agreement. And more than once, Baker told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that if he didn't bend a little, Baker would get on a plane back to Washington. In both of those cases, U.S. diplomats used pressure to get the job done.

A fight that leads to nothing but mistrust, however, is bad: Obama's tough calls for an Israeli settlement freeze that no prime minister could accept first alienated Netanyahu, and then it alienated the Palestinians when Obama backed down. But the truth remains: Getting deals done requires not only ample amounts of honey, but vinegar too.

Lesson: If you aren't prepared to be both tough and reassuring, find another conflict to mediate.

7. Don't drag a president to a summit on a wing and a prayer: American presidents have convened only two leader-level summits with the Arabs and Israelis to try to reach peace agreements -- the successful 1978 Egyptian-Israeli summit and the unsuccessful 2000 Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David. Both were risky ventures. But the Carter summit had a much better chance to succeed for three reasons -- all mirrored in the failure of the second Camp David.

First, Begin and Sadat were strong leaders who came prepared to make decisions. Second, they knew what they were prepared to accept, and the issues on the table were ones that could be mutually agreed upon in a way that would satisfy those needs. And third, the U.S. mediators were well prepared and took charge of the summit to drive the parties toward a successful conclusion.

Committed leaders whose desire for an agreement outweighs the tangible risks of failure, a doable deal, urgency, and a competent American broker: That's the recipe for any future success. 

Lesson: "Trying and failing is better than not trying at all" is an appropriate slogan for a high school football team, but it's no substitute for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power. Failure has consequences.

8. There's still a long way to go: An enormous amount of work has been done since Israelis and Palestinians first started searching for a conflict-ending agreement during the 1990s. In fact, gaps have been narrowed conceptually on all of the issues -- borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees -- not just in so-called Track II diplomacy, but in formal efforts between Israel and Palestinian negotiators.

But to suggest that this body of negotiating history demonstrates that everyone agrees on the end game -- or that it should be easier to arrive there because they can see it off in the distance -- trivializes the challenges at hand. The gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on the core issues remain enormous, and won't be easily bridged simply because the international community has a vision about what the end game should be.

Lesson: The reason we don't have a conflict-ending agreement isn't for lack of clever fixes and rational bridging proposals, it's because of the lack of political will, capacity, and urgency on the part of leaders who continue to see more dangers in trying to change the status quo than risks in maintaining it.

9. Beware of an interim deal: This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Oslo, a heroic but largely failed effort to use an interim approach to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the difficulties of achieving an end game, there will be great temptation to adopt another interim approach -- perhaps the idea of an interim accord or a Palestinian state with provisional borders. Oslo offers a cautionary tale.

Interim agreements can work if the general principles of the final deal have been agreed upon, both sides concur that no unilateral efforts will be made to gain leverage during the interim period, and it's only a matter of implementation proceeding in phases. They can also work if both sides believe an interim deal is better than nothing at all. But a phased approach will not work if it's an open-ended arrangement that aims to reach a piecemeal settlement by piece deferring certain issues and creating ambiguity around others.

Lesson: Be careful before you throw good money after bad.

10. Lone Ranger diplomacy doesn't work: Obama is the most controlling foreign-policy president since Nixon. He doesn't delegate, he dominates. And if Susan Rice becomes his new national security advisor, the marginalization of the State Department will only become more acute.

This kind of control might be fine if you had a real strategy -- if the United States were still viewed as a regional heavyweight, or if Obama's sidekick were Henry Kissinger. But none of that is the case. The Arab-Israeli peace process can't be micromanaged out of the White House; it tends to get politicized and lead to blunders (see: Obama's first term). In any case, the president is too preoccupied with other matters to devote sufficient attention to it.

Lesson: Empower Secretary Kerry, and let him run his own team -- made up of experts who understand the issue and have a clear plan to make progress. That won't guarantee success, but it's the best bureaucratic model.

11. This isn't getting easier: There never was a successful peace process that could be had on the cheap. And the environment is now more challenging than ever before: The Palestinian national movement seems hopelessly fractured, Arab leaders are weaker and more accountable to Arab publics, Islamist voices are louder, and Israelis are seemingly uninterested in peace issues.

There's no mystery in what it would take to produce a conflict-ending agreement and no reason why it couldn't or shouldn't happen. You simply need the following things: Israeli and Palestinian leaders bold enough to pay the price for peace; a determined American mediator prepared to be tough, persistent, and ready to assist with implementation; and Arab states that will support the Palestinians politically and financially -- and who are willing to reach out to Israel with confidence building measures. And all of those things are now missing in action.

Lesson: Good luck, Mr. President. You'll need it.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Israel's Demographic Destiny

Israel can be Jewish, democratic, or a state in control of the Palestinian territories. Choose two.

Men, Karl Marx noted, make history -- but rarely as they please. Surely one of the most binding constraints on political leaders is where their countries are located, and who lives in them. Geography and demography may not make for ironclad destiny, but they are powerful and often immutable forces in shaping the fate of nations.

Before U.S. President Barack Obama embarks on his trip to Israel next week, he ought to take a quick tour around Israel's demographic neighborhood. It may just hold the key to understanding why some of Israel's leaders -- though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not be among them -- are willing to sign on to the creation of a Palestinian state, and what sort of deal would appeal to them.

In the quest to understand Israeli demographics, there is no better guide than Sergio Dellapergola. The Italian-born researcher holds a Ph.D. in demography from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is now a professor emeritus of Israel-Diaspora relations. He has also lent his skills to the Israeli government, serving as a consultant to Israeli presidents and the Jerusalem municipality, among others.

In the run-up to Obama's trip to Israel, I asked Dellapergola to identify the 10 most salient facts about Israel's current demographic reality, and what they mean for Israel's future as a Jewish state.

1.      More than 12 million people currently live in the territory between the Mediterranean shores and the Jordan River, what is known today as Israel and the Palestinian territories. Of these, about 8 million are legal residents of Israel -- a total that includes those who live within its internationally recognized boundaries, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Jewish population in the West Bank. About 1.6 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, and about 2.3 million live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Another 300,000 documented or undocumented foreign workers and refugees also live here, mostly from African countries.

2.      Of Israel's legal population of about 8 million, 6 million are Jews, over 300,000 are non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated in the framework of Israel's Law of Return, and 1.7 million are Arabs -- mostly Muslims, with Christian and Druze minorities. Of the Muslim population, about 300,000 live in East Jerusalem. Of Israel's population of 6 million Jews, about 350,000 live in the West Bank.

3.      Jews constitute 49.8 percent of the total population that lives between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River -- 52 percent, if one includes non-Jewish relatives. If one excludes foreign workers and the Gaza population, Jews represent 62 percent of the total; excluding Palestinians in the West Bank, their share rises to about 79 percent; excluding the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the Jewish share of total population would be 83 percent.

4.      The rate of population growth in the state of Israel is higher than the world's average, estimated at 1.2 percent per year. Among Jews in Israel, it is 1.8 percent -- a figure that includes both immigration and birth rates. Among Arabs in Israel, it is 2.2 percent. In the West Bank and Gaza, the annual population growth is 2.7 percent, including a slightly negative migration balance.

5.      Israel has the highest fertility rate of any developed country in the world -- each woman bears over 3 children on average. Over the last 15 years, Jewish fertility has been slowly increasing -- not just among observant Jews, but also in the highly secular city of Tel Aviv. Fertility among Jewish residents in the West Bank is above 5 children. Among Israel's Muslims, fertility has been stable or slowly declining, and currently stands at 3.5 children.

6.      Immigration to Israel continues, though not at the same pace of the major immigration waves of the past. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, 16,557 people immigrated to Israel in 2012 -- down from 60,201 in 2000. The fact is, most Jews today live in more developed countries where the propensity for emigration is low.

7.      The absolute number of emigrants from Israel has been quite steady over the last 65 years, even as the population has increased tenfold. The annual frequency of emigration from Israel -- roughly 2 emigrants per 1000 residents -- is lower than average emigration from OECD countries.

8.      Both Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land are growing more religious. According to Dellapergola's surveys, 21 percent of Jews said they are now more religious than they were earlier in life, while 14 percent said they are less religious. Among Muslims, 41 percent said they are more religious, while only 4 percent said they are less religious.

Israelis are also largely satisfied with life and optimistic about the future -- and there is no discernible divide between its Jewish and Arab populations on this point. Eighty-eight percent of Israelis declare they are satisfied -- 89 percent of Jews and 87 percent of Arabs. Among both Jews and Arabs, the more religious are happier than the less religious.

9.      The proportion of Israeli haredim, the most religious and self-segregated component of society, is growing. Today, the haredim constitute slightly above 10 percent of the total Jewish population -- however, they also constitute over 20 percent of Jews under 20 years old. In 2030, the proportion of haredim might surpass 20 percent of Israel's total Jewish population, and over one-third of those under 20.

10.  The share of Jews among the total population in Israel and Palestine is slowly decreasing. This dynamic is largely being driven by population growth in the West Bank and Gaza: Within Israel proper, the current 79 percent share of Jews is expected to diminish by just a few percentage points by 2030. But if one also includes the West Bank and Gaza, the current roughly 50-50 division will change to a 56 percent Palestinian majority in 2030. Withdrawing from the Palestinian territories, then, has a dramatic effect on this demographic balance. Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, for instance, postponed the emergence of a Palestinian majority in Israel-ruled territory by 30 years.

What Does It All Mean?

For Dellapergola, Israel's demographic future constitutes its central dilemma -- and this predicament has only been sharpened by the results of the recent election. Essentially, Israel faces two choices: It can be a conglomerate of tribes struggling against each other, or an open society that respects cultural and religious differences, where each citizen participates in building the economy and shaping the state's institutions.

Even more fundamentally, demographic trends mean that Israel can't have it all. It can't be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state in control of its whole historical land. It can only have two of its objectives at a time. Think of it this way: Israel can be Jewish and territorial -- but not democratic. Or it can be democratic and territorial -- but not Jewish. Or finally, it can be Jewish and democratic -- but not territorial. This third choice is the one that can conceivably lead to a two-state solution.

The demographic imperative probably appeals to Obama, a rational thinker who understands the importance of acting in the present to avoid future catastrophes. He has at least once referred to the demographic realities in his speeches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the president also knows from his own political choices that getting politicians to take risks now to prevent disasters and gain rewards later isn't so easy. 

If you've ever read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Dellapergola's projections have a ring of the Ghost of Christmas Future to them. Choices will have to be made. If they are not, Dellapergola seems to be saying that demographic realities will make the decisions, not Israel's leaders.

GPO/Getty Images