Now that Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded in getting Israelis and Palestinians together so they can talk face to face, he probably won't be surprised to learn that direct talks have almost never delivered an Arab-Israeli agreement that lasted.
In almost all of the breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the last 50 years, direct talks without a mediator have delivered only one agreement that has endured. The rest of the time, Americans played the critical role in actually brokering the accord.
Indeed, if the United States wants an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, not only will Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have to own these talks, but John Kerry and Barack Obama will too -- big time.
One of the most intriguing urban legends of the peace process is that the way to Arab-Israeli peace is through direct face-to-face negotiations. The myth has a very compelling and heroic cast to it, particularly for many Israelis who seem to believe that all they really need is an empty room, no preconditions, some Palestinians ... and poof ... we can reach an agreement.
The logic appears compelling enough. Only when Arabs and Israelis sit face to face, work out their problems, and build trust and confidence can the magic of an agreement happen. Isn't the best way to get things done to eliminate the third party and deal directly with one another?
No. The problem with this reading of history is that the facts show that these sort of interactions were, more often than not, a peace process fairy tale. Sadly, the set of near misses and successes in peacemaking isn't a terribly large one. So we can evaluate the historical record pretty easily. And here's what it shows.
The much-ballyhooed notion of direct negotiations in which the parties themselves did most, if not all, of the heavy lifting really succeeded only once. And that was the odd case of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty whose territorial, security, and political issues paled in comparison with those on the Syrian, Egyptian, or Palestinian fronts. When you combine strong and committed leaders (Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein) who like, respect, and trust one another with real, tractable issues, the chances are that a DIY approach will work. But there's also a very good chance that the Israeli-Jordanian situation can't be replicated. And guess what? It hasn't been.
In fact, the only other example of a process driven by direct talks with little third-party involvement, at least for the first four years, was Oslo. And Oslo was a veritable poster child for the imperfections of a negotiation that could have used, at critical points along the way, timely third-party intervention.
It is true that mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization could only have been done directly by the two sides themselves. And direct secret talks did form close relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Given the odds against Oslo succeeding, the interim accords were remarkably creative.
But to expect agreements worked out between the occupier and the occupied and then to imagine a smooth transition to different roles (let alone negotiating thorny issues such as Jerusalem and borders -- when neither side had fulfilled the expectations of the other on the interim accords), was a bridge too far. Perhaps no third-party broker could have managed it. But clearly the two sides doing it themselves never had a chance.
Two of the three remaining successes in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking -- the Kissinger Disengagement accords between Israel and Egypt; Israel and Syria (1973-1975); and the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) were driven by the United States with almost no direct contact between the parties. Not surprisingly, both came in the wake of regional military conflicts in which the Arabs and Israelis were prepared to accept major U.S. involvement and Washington had the will and skill to deliver.