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.