Stepping Up to the Plate

Can Arab states get the peace process back on track?

Can the Arab states rescue the peace process? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think so. Last week's announcement by the Arab League endorsing land swaps, the re-emergence of the Arab Peace Initiative, and rumors of a June summit meeting in Amman, Jordan, suggest we're seeing a reprise of that old canard.

Kerry is right to try. But we should have no illusions: The odds are the Arabs won't step up.

And here's why.

The Arabs love principles …

The pattern of Arab state behavior toward the peace process has been fairly predictable for a pretty long time. Identify big-picture concepts and principles, enshrine them in communiqués at summit meetings, wrap the Arab world in a safe lowest-denominator consensus, urge the United States and Israel to accept it, and hammer them when they don't.

This has now been the case for more than half a century. And it is quite natural, logical, and even understandable. After all, those Arab states that don't share common borders with Israel can't be expected to have the same stake in the conflict as those that do.

Two of the four sovereign states that share a border with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, have moved to protect themselves by cutting a deal with the Israelis. That has put Cairo and Amman in the anomalous position of defending those deals, even while they blast the Israelis in Arab councils. But unsurprisingly, both countries have traditionally played the most positive role in trying to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Those Arabs states outside the conflict zone are another matter. By and large, most have been suspicious of the peace process, critical of Israel and America's pro-Israeli bias, and singularly uninformed about the details and logic of the negotiations.

There were exceptions. During the good old days of the 1990s, a number of Arab states -- including Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, and Qatar -- established diplomatic, economic, and political contacts with Israel. But their overall role and influence were still marginal.

but they're not so good on the details.

The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is perhaps the most constructive approach the Arabs have ever taken on the peace process. Its tone is positive, and the implications of its central conceit -- peace between Israel and the Arab world -- is really quite historic.

Yet it remains a collection of slogans and sound bites, not a blueprint for peace. It only offers up a fuzzy quid pro quo: Israel fully withdraws from all territory occupied in the June 1967 war, and in return the Arab world declares the conflict over and agrees to diplomatic normalization in the context of a comprehensive peace. There, we're done.

What more do we expect from the Arabs? Israel isn't offering anything serious right now. And in any event, why should the Arabs get into the details of the negotiations? Leave those to the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate.

Those who urge the Arab states to offer more confidence-building measures don't understand the Arabs, how weak they really are, or their aversion to normalization with Israel. Indeed, the more the Israelis talk about their need to be accepted and recognized as a Jewish state, the more the Arabs see what a valuable card they hold. And the Arab states won't play that card easily or quickly, or maybe at all. Certainly not until they see what Israel and America are prepared to give.

Indeed, look at the Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the Arab League's endorsement of land swaps -- a move Kerry called a "very big step." To the Palestinians it was a big ho-hum, and annoying to boot, because they resent the Arabs speaking for them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't react directly, but he devalued the move by repeating his opposition to any preconditions. Don't expect much more from the Arabs for a while, particularly if the Israelis keep whacking Hezbollah and Syrian targets.

Islamists on the rise; kings on the run.

Getting the Arabs engaged on any peace process was hard enough back in the day. In these new circumstances, it's only going to be harder. Then, the Arab authoritarians called the shots; now public opinion plays a greater role than ever. Then, Yasir Arafat was in charge of the Palestinian national movement; now Hamas is contesting Fatah's control. And key Arab states, including Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey support the Palestinian Islamists.

Nowhere is the change more evident than with Egypt. From the 1991 Madrid conference to the 1993 Oslo Accords to the abortive effort to get Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian agreements in the late 1990s, Hosni Mubarak was America's key partner. Today, Egypt is somewhere between an ally and an adversary.

So far, President Mohamed Morsy's government has proved to be either neutral on the peace process, or unfriendly. The Egyptian leader did broker the cease-fire in Gaza -- though more out of concern that Hamas would put Egypt in a bad spot than out of any concern for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Morsy never talks about a two-state solution, he's hedging his bets on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and he won't abandon Hamas. It's hard to imagine him hosting the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Cairo, as Mubarak did in 1994. And given the Muslim Brotherhood's sympathies with Hamas and other Islamists, it's anyone's guess whether Morsy would be willing to endorse a practical solution to the status of Jerusalem.

Could Jordan's King Abdullah II replace Mubarak as America's key Arab partner? Kerry seems to be placing a great deal of focus on him, and if the pieces fall into place, the United States is considering a relaunch of negotiations at a conference in Amman. There's no doubt that King Abdullah's role in dealing with the sensitive issue of the Israeli-Palestinian border with Jordan and Jerusalem could be very important.

But King Abdullah isn't his father. He lacks the domestic street cred and regional reputation of King Hussein, and he's under considerable pressure from reformists, Palestinians, and the tide of refugees loosed in the wake of the Syrian crisis. A successful peace conference in Jordan could boost his prestige -- but one that doesn't will damage him.

We need to be careful about putting too much stress on the Jordanians. They're vulnerable, and the Egyptians and Saudis have always looked at them with suspicion. Even King Hussein couldn't serve as the linchpin on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And neither can his son.

Kerry is courting the Turks too, but that's no easy sell. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no American agent; he has his own regional agenda, which still includes support for Hamas and keeping his distance from Netanyahu. Erdogan's ear is finely attuned to Arab public opinion, and he won't risk much unless Turkey stands to gain.

Where the Saudis stand on these matters is also critically important, but not altogether clear. The Arab Peace Initiative was Saudi King Abdullah's initiative, but it's unclear how much effort the king is prepared to invest now, when conditions look so bleak. The Saudis are worried about succession, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and getting their own house in order. And they clearly wonder how serious the United States is on the peace issue. It's hard to see them risking much now, unless America does.

We'll stand up if you do -- maybe.

And that brings us back to Washington. The bottom line with the Arabs is this: If the United States takes the process seriously, then the Arabs may too. And that, of course, raises the question of whether President Barack Obama is willing to press the Israelis hard in his second term.

The Arabs' calculation is that if Washington isn't prepared to risk anything, then why should they?

And on this one, the Arab collective is probably going to be disappointed. Obama didn't reset his relationship with Netanyahu only to go to war with him again on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The peace process may also be the victim of bad timing: Congressional midterm elections in 2014 will soon loom, and both the Syrian crisis and the looming crisis with Iran strongly suggest that the already close bond with Israel is going to get a lot closer.

The Arab hero?

The painful reality is that the Arab states' influence on the peace process has always flowed from individual Arab leaders who stepped up for their own reasons -- not from the Arab collective. You know the list: Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, even Arafat in the early stages of Oslo. Those leaders helped make the Israelis an offer they couldn't refuse. And those leaders had Israeli partners who responded: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres.

It was those Arab leaders that also afforded the United States a good deal of leverage over Israel. Indeed, Secretary of State James Baker used Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's willingness to attend the Madrid conference as an inducement to get Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to show up too. And Begin gave up Sinai in a deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter -- a deal that would never have happened without Sadat, period.

Those kinds of leaders are all gone now. And the idealized conception of the kind of peace Arabs and Israelis might make is gone too. When Kerry extols the virtues of 22 different Arab leaders making peace with Israel, he's talking to a changed region. Whatever peace means these days -- the absence of war, or political agreements that ameliorate conflict -- it's more of a cost-benefit business proposition than a sentimental affair. Arab and Israelis have never had real peace, they don't have it now, and they are unlikely to attain it anytime soon.

Kerry may yet be able to save the peace process, but he won't be able to rescue the peace. Only the Israelis and Palestinians can do that. And the Arabs can’t save it either. Indeed, given the direction the region is going, they’ll be lucky if they can save themselves.



Reality Check

In Search of Reinhold Niebuhr

America could use a little philosophical humility right now.

Surprised that America can't find comprehensive solutions to its problems at home and abroad? Don't be.

Say hello to Reinhold Niebuhr. The late theologian, philosopher, author, and activist was one smart guy. And it's easy to see why. More than half a century after his passing, Niebuhr continues to provide a compelling antidote to our well-intentioned but unrealistic quest for the Big Answer.

On foreign policy, Niebuhr knew that no great power -- not even the United States -- could guide history. Even in the best of times, America never controlled the world -- and we certainly do not control it now. That doesn't mean we can't be effective abroad: We are still the most consequential power on Earth, and boast a better balance of economic, political and military power than any other country. Let's say we're preeminent, but not super dominant.

But no matter how powerful we may be, Niebuhr cautioned against America's tendency to moralize, to set itself apart, and to assume it had a monopoly on justice and truth. He urged humility in the face of the forces of history. He advised the United States to be aware of the limitations imposed by circumstances beyond its control. And he would have agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson that more often than not, events are in the saddle and ride mankind.

Niebuhr's view of democracy is also still relevant today. In many ways, he bumps into America's self-image as a people who can overcome any challenge -- a trope that inexorably and understandably finds its way into the talking points of every politician in America.

Niebuhr cherished the democratic enterprise. It was his belief that man's capacity for justice was what made democracy possible -- and man's inclination to injustice was what made democracy necessary. But as a Christian theologian, Niebuhr also understood human weakness and frailty, which in the end produced "proximate solutions for insoluble problems." Niebuhr sought the middle ground -- the space between the utopianism of the moral idealists and the despair of the cynical realists.

I raise Niebuhr now not to discourage Americans from trying to sort out their problems. The constant striving to close the gap between the way the world is and the way we'd like it to be is one of our greatest strengths. But his perspective is important. We have vast technological and military power. When you give us a task in which the science, technical expertise, and the capacity to innovative is within our capacity, we do well. But when you add in politics and the age-old tussle over the role of government versus individual rights, guess what? We don't fare nearly as well.

So is Niebuhr right? On gun control, entitlements, climate change, or immigration reform, is the best we can hope for these days proximate solutions to insoluble problems? I suspect he is. And here's why.

Transformative change is rare...

Niebuhr's view of imperfect outcomes isn't just a reflection of our contemporary politics. This has been the way change has occurred in the United States since the inception of the republic. The system that the founders created was, to use political scientist Edwin Corwin's notion, an open invitation to struggle.

America's earliest leaders were fearful of both the king and his royal governors on the one hand, and the people -- the mob -- on the other. So they devised institutions that reflected a system of checks, balances, and constraints that made the accumulation of power -- let alone the deployment of that power in the service of dramatic change -- very difficult.

How many truly transformative moments engineered by government have there been in America's history? Only a handful -- the American Revolution itself, the drafting of the Constitution and birth of the Republic, the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal; President Lyndon Johnson's civil rights and Great Society legislation, and President Ronald Reagan's success in changing the terms of the debate over the role of big government.

And even those changes took years to bear fruit. We are at best "evolutionary revolutionaries," who fear unbridled change and who seek to temper it. Indeed, our three undeniably greatest presidents -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR -- were still very much conservative revolutionaries who found a balance between their principles and the pragmatic tactics necessary to realize their ideals. Change in America is no easy matter.

...and it requires real crisis

Transformative change in the United States requires something to go very wrong -- and we're not talking about your garden-variety crisis. Only serious crises can override the unruly nature of our politics, and overcome the structural constraints the founders built into the system.

Once such crisis was the issue of slavery. The founders punted on the issue, and American leaders spent the next half-century looking for ways to manage the southern-northern divide -- until the system could no longer accommodate those compromises. It was only secession and war that made them face up to the reality that the survival of the nation required a resolution of the race issue. And it would still take another 150 years to reconcile the promise of the Declaration of Independence with the reality of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, we face crises of a different order. Our challenges certainly weaken our nation -- they could perhaps even destroy our power. But they are slower bleeds that threaten us over time -- and they lack the immediacy of Depression-era bread lines in the 1930s or the violent images of baton beatings and police dogs charging civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s.

The United States is too big, and too easily distracted. The media covers everything -- and nothing seems to last more than 15 minutes. The terrible shootings in Newtown fade, the Boston Marathon bombing takes over and is then displaced by the explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas. The U.S. government's capacity to focus on problems is made all the harder.

And our modern-day crises don't tame our political system, but polarize it even further. It's not the worst polarization in U.S. history -- Lincoln had it far worse. But a combination of factors, including redistricting, the collapse of the centers in both parties (but much worse on the Republican side), and fundamental gaps on core issues such as the role of government have made our political system both too petty and too principled to get things done.

One might have imagined that the slaughter of school children in Connecticut would have been a moment for Americans to come together in a moment of national unity. And it may well have been -- momentarily. Just consider the polls. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns supported expanded background checks. Still, on April 17, the Senate by a vote of 54-46, with a handful of Democrats joining the Republicans, fell shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the measure.

The moment succumbed to what Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker described as a "textbook example of intensity trumping preference." In the rough and tumble world of gun lobbying, the parents of those children and teachers lost at Newtown never had a chance. It takes more than just public opinion to effect change. "Polls," Baker added, "just don't translate into public policy."

Big change requires big leaders

It's no coincidence that America's three greatest presidents coincided with the three greatest challenges the nation has faced -- the birth of the republic, the civil war, and the Great Depression. A crisis can present a leader with an opportunity -- but he still has to seize it.

Barack Obama is already a historic president. No doubt, he would like to become a great one. This is unlikely, partly because circumstances at home and abroad won't let him, and partly because of his own limitations.

The good news is that Obama has learned much in his first four years in office. He isn't going to be a transformative president who transcends partisan politics and changes the world at home and abroad. The fact is, he's really been a Niebuhrian all along. And there's evidence that the president knows it. Here's what he told New York Times columnist David Brooks that he learned from the man that he described as one of his favorite philosophers:

"I take away," Obama said, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."

Obama is neither a utopian idealist nor a cynical realist. He's constantly striving for rationality in a political world that doesn't always offer it up, and searching for some kind of elusive golden mean.

The president's real challenge -- and ours too -- is that he can't seem to find that balance. Forget about transformation; we can't manage the basic transactions -- pragmatic fixes on gun control, the budget, entitlements, taxes, and immigration reform. Yet we must. Because Niebuhr was right. We simply cannot allow the proximate to become the enemy of the perfect. America's future depends on it. 

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