Five Things to Watch for in the Peace Process

How to tell if John Kerry's efforts with the Israelis and the Palestinians are actually going anywhere.

There's a great deal we don't know (yet) about John Kerry's efforts to resume negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. What assurances did the United States provide the two sides; what commitments did they make to him; indeed, what are the terms for resumption of talks?

One thing we do know is that with Arabs and Israelis nothing happens quickly -- except failure. Arabs and Israelis have two speeds when it comes to negotiations: slow and slower. This is going to be a lengthy and complicated process. And so far the radio silence Kerry has maintained about the details of what he's doing is quite impressive.

So how are we to know if this process is on the right track and won't become just another woulda/shoulda/coulda enterprise? Here are five things on the U.S. side that I'd be on the lookout for.

(1) Are there written terms of reference or letters of assurance?

Right now, the Kerry effort seems suspended somewhere between talks about talks and real negotiations. A bridge needs to be built to move from one to the other. And that bridge consists of the parameters or terms of reference -- e.g., June 1967 borders, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarization of a Palestinian state -- that will guide the negotiations. Ideally, both sides would agree to them publicly and privately. That's clearly not possible here.

More likely, commitments on sensitive matters either have or will be made privately to Kerry as the repository of the parties' confidences or come in the form of assurances that the United States will provide each side in formal letters. In 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker used letters of assurance effectively in enticing the parties to attend the Madrid peace conference.

But Madrid was about process not substance. If two months from now the Israelis and Palestinians are still fighting about these parameters or publicly disavowing the ones they've committed to privately, we'll know the effort is running in the wrong direction. Ambiguity is part of every diplomatic process, and 10 years ago it might have worked here, too. But this process has little credibility and a lack of clarity will kill it.

(2) Is there a negotiating text (and maps, too)?

Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood movie mogul, said it best: an oral agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on. You'll know this process is getting serious when the negotiators start writing things down. And a negotiating text -- whether it's some kind of agenda, a framework agreement on several of the core issues, or what we used to call a FAPS (a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status) -- is critical not just to an agreement, but to how the negotiations are organized.

It's too early to expect any common text to emerge. But without one sooner rather than later, even on the level of general principles, let alone an agreement embodying the universe of details, you might as well hang a "closed for the season" sign on this process and any hope for an agreement. That's true for maps perhaps more than any other single element -- they are a critical sign of seriousness or lack of seriousness. If we're talking borders, then maps, particularly those presented by Israel, will become an early test of whether this is serious. No maps, no deal.

(3) Will there be U.S. bridging proposals?

It's too early for them yet. Kerry needs to let both sides engage directly. But he should know that, with the exception of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, every other agreement that endured came not from direct talks only, but from U.S. mediation. Oslo, the poster child for direct talks, failed. At some point, what is now already obvious will become stunningly so: the gaps on the big issues cannot be bridged without U.S. intervention. Indeed, this time around there is even less ownership of the process by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Kerry is already the glue holding it together.

That means the United States will need to play a role in developing ideas and proposals designed to bridge the gap on the core issues. Look for our willingness and capacity to do that. If we're not up to it or if we're not prepared to be fair in the way we consider those proposals -- and at the last serious attempt at mediation, the Camp David summit, we weren't, instead choosing to side with or acquiesce in Israeli views -- these talks won't succeed. 

(4) Is Kerry bringing on a special envoy?

He must. After six Middle East trips and hundreds of additional hours spent, the secretary of state already realizes he can't be the peace process Lone Ranger. Bringing Deputy Legal Advisor Jonathan Schwartz into the negotiations was probably the smartest staffing decision Kerry has made. John is not only a brilliant lawyer and wordsmith, but he also thinks a step or three ahead, anticipating in a cool and detached manner what Israeli and Palestinian needs and requirements are when it comes to the substance. My own sense that things were getting serious with Kerry went from 0 to 60 when I heard John was involved. Right now Schwartz is the only institutional memory Kerry has.

But it will take more than a brilliant lawyer to staff this up. The other data point to look for is a decision to bring in a special envoy. If these talks turn into negotiations, Kerry is going to need someone with negotiating experience in the Middle East, authority and stature. The negotiations will soon -- if he's lucky -- become all-consuming, a 24/7 process; and despite the talents of the secretary's Senate staff, Kerry will need a quarterback reporting to him directly to manage this, to travel when he can't, to deal with the Europeans and the Arabs, and to coordinate an interagency process that will involve CIA and DOD. That individual will have to be someone who knows the players personally and the issues. And this decision needs to be made and announced soon. One candidate who has been mentioned prominently in recent days is Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

(5) Will Obama get involved?

The short answer to this question is "yes" -- if talks appear to have a chance to succeed. If not, this will remain John Kerry's peace process. This is not to say that the president won't agree to meet with the leaders, make phone calls, etc. But getting the president to commit to a full-court press -- attendance at a high-level leaders' negotiating summit to close a deal -- will depend on whether his secretary of state has brought the two sides to the point where the gaps between them can actually be closed. And we're a long way from that. But at the end of the day, the president, not John Kerry, will have to close this deal -- and risk a fair amount of political capital in the process. Indeed, a deal will mean pushing both sides farther than they were prepared to go. And in the case of Israel, this could get particularly messy.

Can Kerry Succeed?

Predicting the outcome of the Kerry effort is a pointless exercise. My own analysis on the peace process has been annoyingly negative not because of ideology, bias, or career change. My sober assessment flows from my agreement with one of America's preeminent philosophers, Groucho Marx (or Harpo) in Duck Soup: Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? I see what I see; and it's pretty tough to persuade me that a conflict-ending accord on all the big issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, is possible now.

That doesn't mean that agreement on borders and security isn't leading to provisional Palestinian statehood with commitments to negotiate the rest. But even that will take a heroic effort on the part of leaders who are more risk-averse politicians than great leaders. Can they do it anyway if pushed and supported by Kerry and Obama? We'll find out soon enough.

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Reality Check

Dumb and Dumber

No, the United States should not suspend aid to Egypt.

I've come up with some pretty dumb ideas during the course of my career in diplomacy and government (see: inviting Yasir Arafat to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). But what I'm hearing in Washington these days about suspending U.S. assistance to Egypt is even dumber.

The recommendation is coming from a good many people whom I really admire and respect, including John McCain. Motives run from frustration that Barack Obama's administration has been behaving like a potted plant in the Arab world and a conviction it must lead, to strong belief in a freedom and human rights agenda, to the principle that you shouldn't be allowed to change a democratically elected government at will without paying a significant price, particularly when U.S. law mandates a price. Together, these arguments form a collective cri de coeur for action -- in this case having the president pull the only lever he has: suspending or threatening to suspend military assistance.

I get all of this. It's compelling. But not compelling enough. Suspending aid won't help Egypt or the United States during this critical period. And here's why.

It's Just Not Logical

Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States provided billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to an Egyptian regime that abused human rights, tortured and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners, and ran a deep state that made a mockery of real politics. There was no pretense of democracy in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt (or in Anwar Sadat's for that matter).

The United States had cut a devil's bargain. In exchange for Egypt's continuing its peace treaty with Israel and supporting other U.S. policies in the region, the United States gave Mubarak a broad pass on human rights and political reform and solidified the deal with aid. It was a bargain designed to perpetuate stability, and it proved to be a false stability. But it lasted a long time.

Egypt now has real politics, however messy, and millions of people are participating in those politics. So how can the United States now justify suspending that assistance when Egypt is in the process of democratizing, even with all the concerns about the military's motives and heavy-handedness? How many countries have changed their governments through popular will expressed via street demonstrations twice in 18 months without massive violence?

The United States dealt with a police state for almost 30 years and did next to nothing to promote respect for human rights and serious reform. And now, when Egypt has a real chance to build a better political system over time, the United States has finally decided to get tough with the only institution in Egypt that can guarantee some measure of stability during a critical moment? Some would argue that now is precisely the time to get tough. Read on. I'm not one of them.

The Military Is Really Popular (and America Is Not)

Popular coup, corrective, military intervention with the public support, popular impeachment -- no matter how you try to rationalize it away, the Egyptian military removed a democratically elected government, no matter how incompetent or authoritarian it had become. I understand the damage here. And there's an American reality that we must consider -- legal obligations that pertain to coups and bad precedents that get set. These things matter.

But if Americans could see beyond their own indignation for a minute, there's also an Egyptian reality that frankly matters more. Whether one wants to admit it or not, this coup was energized not by a clique of power-crazed generals eager to govern Egypt, but by a wave of popular anger, frustration, and despair against the incompetent, exclusive Muslim Brotherhood, which was taking the country in the wrong direction and threatening Egypt's prosperity, security, and identity.

In a July 11 briefing call sponsored by the Wilson International Center for Scholars, three prominent Egyptians -- Anwar Sadat, nephew of the late Egyptian president; Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian minister and ambassador; and Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to Washington and soon-to-be foreign minister -- hammered home this theme again and again. They all urged Americans to understand how necessary and how popular the military's move was.

In essence, all argued that the military was following, not leading, the people's desire for a do-over -- and that the military, for now, is the most popular, relevant, and legitimate actor in the country.

America, on the other hand, is unpopular, out of step, and out of touch. For the most part, the United States is seen as slow-witted and calculating at the same time and as backers of the status quo -- in this case Mohamed Morsy's government.

The very last thing the United States needs right now is to be seen as punishing the Egyptian Army, because many Egyptians see its actions as an expression and agent of the popular will. By pressing the military, the United States is in effect opposing the public's mandate and the putative agent of its deliverance. If the military doesn't deliver (and it may not), there will be plenty of time to reassess, but suspending aid now makes no sense and will only further erode U.S. credibility on the streets. Egyptians would then truly believe America was in bed with the Muslim Brothers.

The Military Is Here to Stay (and America Needs It)

Along with the pyramids and traffic jams, few realities are more enduring in Egypt than the military. And, right now, it may well be the key agent of change, for better or for worse. Twelve days after revolution 2.0, the United States has no business undertaking major shifts in its policy.

The military isn't going anywhere. And we need to recognize that reality. We need to see, too, that the United States has a variety of interests in Egypt. Cutting deals with military dictators and enabling anti-democratic behavior aren't any of them. But neither is alienating the only institution in the state that can maintain order, has the loyalty of the people, and furthers U.S. interests.

Egypt is the largest, most powerful Arab state, and it's better, not worse, for America that its military is U.S.-supplied. It's better, not worse, that U.S. aid is the adhesive that binds the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, however cold. It's better, not worse, for the United States that hundreds of Egyptian military officers are trained in America and exposed to Western thinking and innovation. It's better, not worse, that Egyptian and American forces can operate together in case of a regional crisis (see: Saddam's invasion of Kuwait). And it's far better, not worse, that the U.S. military is held in such high esteem in a once-hostile state that is still seen as the most influential actor on the Arab stage. The United States has leverage with the military -- much leverage. But that brings us to the final question: How does the United States best use it and to what end?

Suspending Aid Won't Create Democracy

Let's be clear. For the past 18 months the Egyptian experiment with democratization has been in the hands of the two least democratic forces in the country: the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. And the third actor -- the putative progressive opposition -- is so divided and decentralized that it can't offer up a credible organized movement that could govern. To rally in the streets, yes. But to organize for politics and governance, not yet.

It would be one thing if the transition to civilian rule had broken down and the party clearly responsible had been a power-hungry military that was preventing a constitution from reflecting the popular will or reneging on promises to hold scheduled elections. It may yet come to that. But more time and space are required before dramatic action is taken.

This will be a long movie. Finding truly national leaders and creating inclusive institutions will not be easy. And how to create a real democracy where the military is subordinate to civilian authority, where it doesn't monopolize power over all national security issues, where it doesn't control 20 percent of the Egyptian economy, and where its budget is subject to review -- are years away. There will be no dramatic democratic transformations here, only a painful and incremental evolutionary process, because what's required for real democratic life doesn't yet exist on planet Egypt.

I think the Obama administration gets this. I'm not at all sure many of the pundits, politicians, and analysts calling for aid suspension do.

If the United States wants to play a positive role in this process, it will work quietly, not noisily, with the military and the other actors, pushing them all to be accountable, inclusive, and serious about how best to structure a transition that makes sense for Egypt and includes a Muslim Brotherhood that doesn't consider itself above the law. America should stand up for its principles but not be taken hostage by them in a way that ignores its other interests. And above all, the United States must come to terms with what should be stunningly obvious: Right now, Egyptian realities are far more relevant and important than American ones.

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