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Don't Call It a Shuttle

John Kerry arrived in the Holy Land in his latest attempt to jumpstart talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Here's how he can get the peace process off life support.

War threatens the Korean Peninsula, Syria is imploding, and negotiations with Iran are at an impasse -- even as the centrifuges continue to spin toward a nuclear nirvana for the mullahs. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry spent his weekend trying to wrestle with the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Confused about Kerry's priorities? Don't be. Pushing for progress on the Mideast peace process is both necessary and commendable.

The Palestinian problem isn't the key to regional tranquility. It never was and never will be. But it will continue to be a drag on American credibility in a region that has grown increasingly angry, anti-American, and dysfunctional -- particularly now that acquiescent authoritarians like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have passed from the scene. The United States has less regional cover now, and its policies are more exposed to the fiery cauldron of Arab public opinion than ever before.

The issue isn't whether the United States should engage, but how. Kerry, Obama's point man for this mission, confronts a conundrum: The two-state solution is too complicated to implement now, but it's also too important to abandon. It's hard to see how to square this particular circle at the moment.

That brings us to the matter of John Kerry and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the secretary of state undertakes his third visit to the not-so-holy-land in as many months, here are four "don'ts" -- and one "do" -- about how to revive the stalled peace process.

Don't call this a shuttle

Kerry hasn't used the "s" word, to my knowledge. He's said repeatedly -- probably too many times -- that he isn't carrying a ready-made plan or initiative in his pocket.

But the press -- struck by the difference in style from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton -- has started beating the drum that we're heading into some kind of U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Sooner rather than later, some journalists would have you believe, the secretary of state will embark on some urgent mission in which he hooks the parties around some negotiating text and shuttles back and forth between the parties in breathless pursuit of an agreement. We can only hope so.

In the Middle East context, the "s" word was first used by Henry Kissinger in 1973 and 1974. The late Undersecretary of State Joe Sisco, or more likely the inestimable Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, invented the term. It would come to describe the successful pursuit of three disengagement agreements -- two between Israel and Egypt, and one between Israel and Syria. The latter took 33 days -- making it the longest period in which a secretary of state had been out of the United States since Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State Robert Lansing attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919.

But whatever Kerry is trying to do, he's not shuttling. A couple of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah doesn't a shuttle make. Shuttle diplomacy requires urgency, Arabs and Israelis who really are serious about a deal, a negotiating text, and a willful and empowered mediator prepared to use honey and vinegar to bring the two sides together. It helps immensely if the broker is prepared to walk away from the enterprise if the parties don't cooperate. Is any of that in place now?

Don't overestimate the importance of personality

And this brings us to a related point. I've harped in this space repeatedly on the skills and virtues of two previous secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. But without the circumstances that allowed them to display their formidable talents, there would have been no virtuoso performance. And the most important of these circumstances is the urgency of the moment -- usually driven by both pain and gain, which impels the locals to change their calculations and readjust their horizons to consider an agreement.

Do we really think Kissinger could have succeeded without the 1973 October war, Jimmy Carter without Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, or Baker without America's victory in the first Gulf War? Those guys were good -- but they weren't that good.

No matter how smart and determined Kerry is, he can't manufacture that sense of urgency nor fabricate the ownership required by the Arabs and Israelis to reach an agreement. He can prod, push, bribe, and cajole -- but without the parties' need for the deal, it's not going to happen.

The absence of that urgency and ownership is why there has been no consequential U.S.-brokered agreement since Baker's Madrid conference. That's right -- since October 1991. I'll do the math: That's nearly 22 years.

Don't push for talks for the sake of talks

I'm sure Kerry has already figured this out. Going back to the table without some mutually agreed terms of reference, guidelines, and a code of conduct will mean motion without movement and undermine what's left of the negotiating process -- not to mention Kerry's credibility.

What could possibly come of a rush to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table if the gaps that separate them are too wide, neither side is invested in the proposals, and the lack of trust is so deep that neither side is prepared to give the other the benefit of the doubt? At Madrid, we knew that talking for the sake of talking was worth something -- old taboos were broken, new bonds formed. But that was then.

After two decades of failed talks, violence, broken trust, negotiations without direction are not just a key to an empty room, they're destructive and harmful. No negotiations are better than dishonest ones.

Don't become part of the furniture

Baker made nine trips to the Middle East in 1991 to pull off the Madrid conference. Bill Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, travelled to the Middle East 20-some times to support the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreements. Some criticized him for it, and there was certainly a lot of process and little peace. But that diplomacy helped support the Oslo process, facilitate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and broker agreements between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria along the Israeli-Lebanese border. That was a lot of time in the air, to be sure, but the diplomacy actually led to results.

Kerry will soon face a separate frequent-flyer problem. For a new secretary of state, three trips in as many months to assess the situation on the ground makes sense. But if Kerry makes a few more without gaining some traction, he will increasingly risk being taken for granted by the Israelis and Palestinians -- too much a part of the furniture.  Both parties can smell an empty suit a mile away. Without results, the Kerry's street cred will rapidly diminish.

The new secretary of state must preserve his authority, and that's undermined by repeated travel viewed as motion without movement. Working on a proposal to get the parties back to the table without a way to keep them there just won't cut it. Condi Rice got her own Hebrew verb -- le kandel -- for her eight trips to put together the Annapolis Conference. The word means "to do nothing."

In this regard, Kerry has a bureaucratic problem. He's right to shy away from appointing a high-level envoy, but he does need a person of some stature who reports to him and can work this issue 24/7, particularly in the region. There are problems with allowing his assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs to play that role: It's a big region and the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a full-time business. Nor can the U.S. ambassador to Israel or the consul general in Jerusalem do it, because it's hard for them to engage with both sides. But if this process gets going, he will need someone who can travel to the region with a frequency that he simply can't.

Do: Identify a strategy

I know this seems so obvious that it shouldn't need repeating. But just take a look at Obama's first term: A bunch of very smart people either thought they had a strategy, or figured they didn't need one. Either way, what emerged -- pushing Netanyahu on a comprehensive settlement freeze -- took bumbling to a new level.

Describing Kerry's challenge is simple. Given the current impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, what might work?

Here's what won't -- a focus on confidence-building measures. It's the 20th anniversary of Oslo -- a heroic process that failed in part because its interim character couldn't be tied to a political horizon that included a resolution to the core issues of the status of Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees.

The other idea whose time hasn't come -- but is already linked to Kerry's talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- is using the Turks to lean on Hamas to recognize Israel. It's a curious strategy that threatens to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, alienate Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, and provide a justification for some Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to put the negotiations on permanent hold. And it will also embroil Obama in a political mess with Congress and the pro-Israel community.

Every think tank in Washington is basically sending the same message to Kerry: A conflict-ending agreement isn't possible now, so focus on getting an agreement on principles or terms of reference on the big issues. And try to begin with a focus on borders and security -- the two issues where the gaps are narrowest.

This approach makes sense, but has its drawbacks. Jerusalem is a territorial issue too, and by breaking the issues apart you remove the capacity to do trade-offs. For Palestinians, deferring Jerusalem and refugees is a major problem, and the chances of getting this Israeli government and Abbas to agree on setting the border based on some variation of the June 1967 lines is remote.

Still, it's likely that Kerry will try to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to pursue some variant of the security for sovereignty tradeoff, together with confidence-building measures in the initial phase.

Will it work? Well, who knows. But along the way, a moment will invariably come when success or failure may depend on a sustained intervention and some risk taking by the president. We already know Kerry cares about the two-state solution -- he's spending his weekends in Jerusalem and Ramallah instead of his pad on Nantucket. But does the president? At some point, we're also going to find out whether -- or to be more precise, just how much -- Barack Obama cares.

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Reality Check

Why Obama Failed in the Middle East

From the Arab Spring, to Syria, to Iran, to the peace process, President Barack Obama's actions have yet to live up to his high-flying rhetoric.

It is the cruelest of ironies that President Barack Obama's legacy in the Middle East -- a signature issue for many U.S. presidents -- now lies in the hands of two of his most intractable adversaries: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It also probably doesn't make him sleep any easier that the third major player is a man with whom he has a famously dysfunctional relationship: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.

It's cruel because saving Syria, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace seem well beyond the president's capacity -- even if he boasted the support of willing and trusting partners. And it's ironic because Obama set out not to preside over catastrophes in the Middle East but to transform the region for the better. He now risks being the president on whose watch it all became so much worse.

Is this unhappy tale primarily Obama's fault? No. But on the four key issues that will likely define the president's legacy in this region, his critics have already reached a very different conclusion -- and history may too.

A regional order transformed

It was both Obama's luck and misfortune to have been president during a historic, once-in-a-century transformation of the Middle East. You don't get to be a doer of great deeds unless you're confronted with great events and are then able to help shape them (see: Lincoln, FDR).

Obama was lucky enough to have the first, but he couldn't -- his critics allege -- produce the second. Unlike the period from 1986 to 1992, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were perceived as proactive players in shaping events after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Obama may be seen as more the bystander.

The comparisons to the end of the Cold War are perhaps a bit unfair. The president was indeed on the right side of history in the early acts of the Arab Spring: He recognized the inevitability of the end of America's authoritarian friends in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen -- and to his credit, he was proactive in helping get rid of Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi.

But subsequent inattention in Libya and the Benghazi debacle, Obama's vacillation about how to deal with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, a hesitancy to speak out more forcefully against the Brothers' exclusivist and arbitrary policies in Egypt, and acquiescence to Saudi-backed repression in Bahrain raised doubts about whether he had indeed moved to the right side of history.

Yet the "who lost the Middle East?" debate is really a silly one -- the region was never Obama's to lose. America cannot dictate the course of events there, even if it wanted to. It was, after all, Arabs' ownership of their own politics that gave the Arab Spring its authenticity and legitimacy.

But the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists has hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations. Where was the appointment of the "super envoy" to oversee America's strategy toward the Arab Spring, the task forces to monitor regional developments around the clock, and the strategic use of incentives and disincentives to reinforce positive change and lay down markers in the face of negative behavior? Or was it all just too much -- too fast and furious to keep track of?

Had the Arab Spring moved in the right direction, Obama would have been hailed as a strategic genius for his smart, low-cost management from the sidelines. Sadly, it has moved the other way -- toward instability, violence, and dashed hopes. As a result, what people saw -- certainly those in the Middle East, where it's easy to blame somebody else for your troubles -- is a president who became strangely disconnected and who at best just seemed to have other things to do. At worst, he seemed to have simply stopped caring.

Syria: Exhibits A to Z

Nowhere is the charge of passivity and abandonment more likely to stick than in Syria.

I've supported the president's risk-averse approach on Syria, largely because the endgame the United States wants -- a liberal, secular, pro-Western Syria -- is beyond America's capacity to achieve from the outside and not worth the risk of a more muscular intervention that would require the United States to be on the inside. Splitting the difference by thinking America can get what it wants by arming this or that rebel group in a sea of competing rebel groups and external actors for which Syria is truly vital is, well, laughable.

History may prove much less sympathetic, however. Syria's isn't Obama's Rwanda. But the killing -- and the passive reaction of the entire international community -- will raise inevitable questions about what more could have been done.

It won't help the president's case that key members of his national security team recommended doing more and he overruled them. It may not be remembered that "more" would barely have altered the military arc of the conflict.

It's lonely at the top. And the president will be criticized on moral, humanitarian, and strategic grounds for not doing more. Plenty of circumstances could still bring America into Syria, particularly the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. But barring some heroic, improbable intervention that brings down the Assads and stabilizes the country, it's hard to see how Obama could create a counternarrative to the judgment history is likely to bestow on him.

Iran

Obama stands to be the U.S. president who either allows Iran to get a nuclear weapon, is the first to bomb the country, or becomes the guy who cuts an interim deal that keeps the mullahs a few years away from nuclear nirvana. That last scenario, by the way, comes with ready-made tensions with Netanyahu, with whom Obama just mended fences. The Israeli prime minister will wonder how a limited tactical deal on enrichment fixes Israel's strategic problem with prospective Iranian nukes. It also offers no real guarantees that the Israelis -- unhappy with a diplomatic outcome -- don't at some point resort to military action on their own. If he's really lucky, he gets out of town before Iran gets the bomb, and then it's the next president's headache.

Not a terribly appetizing menu for the legacy buffet. A military strike could make Obama look strong, but there are those pesky, unpredictable repercussions, including plunging financial markets, skyrocketing oil prices, and escalating regional tensions. A grand bargain in which the mullahs gave up their nuclear weapons ambitions and began to work with the West toward a more stable Middle East would make the president look like a genius. But it's an outcome he's unlikely to see.

The reality is that Iran -- followed by North Korea -- is probably the most difficult puzzle in the international system today. There are no happy endings or comprehensive solutions. And for this president, who has publicly vowed not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, the ironies abound. Think about this: His predecessor went to war against Iraq, a war Obama strongly opposed, because of imaginary weapons of mass destruction, only to strengthen and embolden an Iran that could cross some significant nuclear threshold on Obama's watch.

The much-too-promised land

Obama's hopes for burnishing his legacy don't improve when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Will he become the president on whose watch the two-state solution finally expires?

Here, perhaps, there's more time, leeway, and even some hope to improve the odds of leaving a meaningful legacy behind. Sure, the possibility of a big, conflict-ending accord seems pretty remote, but in between doing nothing and the full monty, there's much to be tried. And Secretary of State John Kerry -- the new, very smart and savvy Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy -- is well suited to the task, if the president gives him the latitude.

Kerry has a lot of options as he attempts to kick-start the peace process. He can try to first define the borders of a provisional Palestinian state. He might try to focus on terms of reference to guide a negotiation. He could even sprinkle in some resonant confidence-builders for both sides and a kind of code of conduct during a negotiating period. And if he's really ambitious, he can see where the gaps are on all the issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, and try for a framework agreement that would garner support in the Arab world by tying it to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Given the uncertainties in the region and the gaps between the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, I think Obama has no illusions about Israeli-Palestinian peace. That's why he has a Plan B in mind: the legacy initiative. And that's the Obama parameters -- laying out U.S. views on the big issues to define the negotiations. It's not a perfect approach: Kerry, I'm told, wants an actual agreement. If all else fails, however, you can lay out these parameters, and who knows -- with enough effort, maybe you can get one side to embrace them and then try to leverage the other.

But even if you can't, Obama can use them to demonstrate his commitment to the desirability and importance of a two-state solution. This kind of exercise is vintage Obama -- rhetorical, above the details, plenty of thematic altitude with no need for real follow-up. It's not great for U.S. credibility if there are no takers and the Obama initiative is left hanging, but it beats the alternative: a big, fat goose egg from a president who initially set the bar so high.

Might Obama's zero for three-and-a-half legacy be averted? Can't the next several years offer up a different and happier set of endings? Isn't it still possible for Obama to be the president he wanted to be: the transformer, the peacemaker, the visionary leader?

It's hard to see how. The issues in this region are so complex, the mistrust between the parties so deep, the number of moving pieces so many, that it's tough to imagine grand bargains and transformative change brokered by a risk-averse president.

The pull of doing great things that initially inspired Obama will continue to tug. At least when it comes to the Middle East, the president should do everything he can to mightily resist it. Big transformations require that the locals -- in this case, the Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians -- share real urgency and ownership. Only then can a willful and skillful president exploit that urgency and ownership and turn crisis into opportunity.

Right now, the first isn't evident and the second is a still a thought experiment. Obama ought to think transactions, not transformations: Try a serious effort to broker a deal with the mullahs before going to war, and do the same with Israelis and Palestinians to preserve the possibility of peace. Such interim accords aren't sexy or the stuff of which legacies are made. They won't get Obama into the presidential hall of fame. But they are both desirable and possible.

And if Obama is really lucky, he just might be able to do something that seems pretty consequential right now: leaving this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region a little better than he found it.

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