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Can the United States ever be an honest broker in Middle East peace talks?

In the dusty annals of the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, there is a recurring belief that the United States has failed to be an honest broker. But this is only part of the story, and not even the most relevant one today. The more compelling question is whether the United States can play such a role.

This is not simply a thought experiment. If U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's framework materializes, the real fun (and tortuous negotiations) will begin to determine whether a comprehensive agreement can be reached, let alone implemented. And assuming that's what the United States truly wants, it will demand that Washington, including President Barack Obama, jump into the mix in a way that goes beyond anything we have seen to date, playing the kind of broker role to which it is not accustomed. Understanding what that role will entail requires looking back at how the United States has conducted itself in the peace process up to now, as well as busting some myths and making some predictions as we go.

Honest? No. What exactly does it mean to play the role of honest broker? Over the years, some Israelis have told me it is code for the United States pressuring their country. Similarly, Palestinians have made the case that it means understanding and supporting their side in negotiations, including pushing Israel to halt its policies toward the West Bank, closures, and settlements.

But if, as the name suggests, honest broker in fact means fair, impartial, and neutral, then the United States has never really played such a role. There have essentially been four negotiations where the broker role really mattered: Henry Kissinger's disengagement agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt; the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty; the 1991 Madrid peace conference; and the last serious run at an Israeli-Palestinian agreement at Camp David in July 2000. In three of these cases, the United States worked off a set of terms that were remarkably favorable to the Israeli position.

Kissinger accepted a step-by-step approach, avoided doing any serious negotiating in an international conference format, and worked to make the most of America's special connection with Israel in order to keep the Arabs at the table. There was tension over the second disengagement agreement and the famous call for a reassessment when Israel balked at Kissinger's terms. But this was largely theater -- even though, to a degree, it may have helped change Yitzhak Rabin's view and complete the agreement.

At the Madrid conference, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made the Israelis an offer they simply could not refuse by creating terms for the conference that stripped it of any power, and he produced a Syrian delegation and a Palestinian not with the PLO officials who would lead to direct talks. And on the fourth day of the second Camp David summit, the United States abandoned its effort to produce a framework agreement when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak essentially vetoed U.S. formulations.

Even during the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, U.S. President Jimmy Carter eventually accepted the Israeli view that the peace treaty would be unconnected to any serious effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who would have preferred a Palestinian deal, wanted Sinai more and acquiesced to the talks in a realistic approach that could have been pulled from a Rolling Stones tune: Sometimes in life you get what you need, not necessarily what you want.

Essentially, then, the American approach to negotiations has long been rooted in taking Israeli ideas, Americanizing them, factoring in some Arab elements, and trying to sell them to both sides.

Practical and effective? Absolutely. In none of the aforementioned negotiations was the United States a strictly honest broker. In fact, to borrow a concept from the late Israeli academic Saadia Touval, the United States has been a partial mediator and has milked this concept effectively. Indeed, it is precisely this partiality that has helped the United States deliver -- on occasion.

Partiality can be successful in negotiations for two reasons. First, the United States is able to convince the Arabs that the special relationship with Israel can be used effectively in getting them what they want. Second, the United States can use that intimate bond with Israel to gain its trust and confidence, in turn persuading (with plenty of goodies) the Israelis to deliver what the Arabs want -- or at least a version that is close enough.

The fact is -- and it may be politically incorrect to admit it -- U.S. relevance in the peace process exists because of this special connection with Israel, not in spite of it. Without it, Washington's phone would not have been ringing these many years with calls "to do something" about the peace process. The problem, of course, is that the special bond sometimes becomes an exclusive one, and we lose any sense of objectivity and independence.

Still, when the United States has been tough and reassuring enough, aided and abetted by Arabs and Palestinians who saw some merit in close cooperation with Washington, it has been able to produce agreements. Total honesty, in other words, hasn't been a requirement for effectiveness.

Kerry isn't exactly honest. Is Washington operating in this way again? Or is Kerry acting as both an honest and an effective broker?

My suspicion is that Kerry is somewhere in between at this stage. He would not have gotten this far with the Israelis had he not been operating within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comfort zone and had he not accepted the prime minister's views on key issues, much as his predecessors did in previous negotiations. For instance, as a practical matter, the Americans have already given the Israelis a get-out-of-jail-free card on settlements.

Bringing Netanyahu along the rest of the way means allowing him to put his mark on the process in at least three areas: Jordan Valley security arrangements that allow for an Israeli presence over some period of time; effective negation of the Palestinian right of return; and Palestinians' recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It also means negotiating with Netanyahu on two other formulations -- Jerusalem and 1967 borders -- to see whether ones can be found that meet both Israeli and Palestinian needs.

Whether it's possible to square this circle is unclear. But remember, what Kerry is working on is only an agreement on a framework, not something final or comprehensive. He has flexibility in how he presents this document: It need not be a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement at all. It could be a statement of U.S. views to which the sides associate themselves -- partially if necessary and with asterisks. It could be a record of what has been achieved so far. Or it could be a paper that reflects where there is common ground and where there isn't. Ideally, though, it ought to set out parameters that could guide the upcoming negotiations on a final deal.

Can Washington be honest when it counts? As Kerry proceeds from framework to final deal, however, keeping everyone on board will require stripping away ambiguities -- getting down to the nitty-gritty of what both sides want and how much they are willing to compromise. And more so than in any past negotiation, this will require the United States to diminish its partiality, instead striking a reasonably fair balance that can meet both Israeli and Palestinians needs.

Indeed, let's be clear: Getting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will go beyond anything the United States has ever done in peacemaking in the Middle East. In comparison to past negotiations, the issues are more ideologically and emotionally resonant; the leaders are not nearly as strong; the distance in terms of territory is much smaller; and an established state is negotiating with a divided nonstate seeking to become recognized. Finally, this agreement must last -- it must end conflict once and for all.

Of the six issues in the negotiations, the United States is closer to Israel's position on four: no right of return to Israel; security arrangements; recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and an end of conflict and claims. But on the remaining two -- borders and Jerusalem -- the United States is closer to the Palestinians, who have said for so long that they are left with only 22 percent of historic Palestine and need something very close to all of the West Bank (using land swaps), plus a capital in East Jerusalem.

This prompts several questions: Can Netanyahu accept formulations that will satisfy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on those two issues? Will he be up to moving settlers and dismantling settlements? Forget the agreement on a framework -- what happens when you need to get to the final deal and these things are standing in your way? Is Washington prepared to offer up its own positions on Jerusalem and borders to fill in the gaps or to pressure Netanyahu when he won't accept them?

It is hard to see the United States pushing Israel to do so at a time when there are so many Israeli and congressional suspicions over the Iran nuclear deal, when U.S. midterm elections are this November, and when a risk-averse president is more concerned with the U.S. middle class than the Middle East and is not looking for a fight with a close ally. And even if the United States does push, it's hard to imagine Netanyahu rolling over without a fight.

Kerry will likely get his agreement on a framework. But his conundrum -- and Obama's -- on actually moving to a two-state agreement that has any chance of being implemented is clear: Closing the divide between the two sides will require the kind of toughness, fairness, and reassurance that the United States has never demonstrated in peace talks -- as well as fighting with a close ally, which is never cheap.

America, in other words, will have to be a more honest broker because being the practical one may not be good enough. Unfortunately, I'm not at all sure Washington is up to it.

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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