Handicapping the peace process (updated)

As Hillary Clinton showed, one of the tasks of the secretary of state is to take on unpleasant duties that the president doesn't want to bother with. John Kerry gets to play that role now, and we saw it in action in the Middle East over the past week or so. Here's how Kerry justified a new U.S. effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal that took him to Israel on three separate occasions:

"I am intensely focused on this issue and the region because it is vital really to American interests and regional interests to try and advance the peace process and because this festering absence of peace is used by groups everywhere to recruit and encourage extremism ... Both sides mistrust each other deeply and there are reasons that mistrust has built up ... I am convinced that we can break that down."

An intriguing side note is the idea that Kerry and Obama want to revive the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative, first put forward back in 2002 and reiterated in 2007. That proposal offered Israel full peace and diplomatic recognition if it returned to the 1967 borders and agreed to the formation of a viable Palestinian state. The original proposal was far from perfect and there were lots of details that would have had to be settled via negotiation, but it was a promising start that Israel and the Bush administration foolishly ignored. 

So what are the odds that this new U.S. effort will succeed? Short answer: slim to none. Obama was badly burned by this issue during his first term, and he's not going to waste time or political capital on it unless he is very, very confident that he can get across the finish line. He knows that a final deal will involve knocking heads with Netanyahu and defying the hardline elements of the Israel lobby here at home, and he's not going to do either of those things unless he can really, truly pull off a final status deal. He's willing to let his secretary of state run around and do what he can accomplish, but Obama himself has got other things to do.

So the real question is whether Kerry can pull off a miracle and get the parties close enough to an agreement to convince Obama to re-engage. To succeed, Kerry needs to be able to come into the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, we are really, really, really close. Here are the terms I've gotten each side to accept, and both are ready to sign on the dotted line. There are just one or two teeny-tiny sticking points, but if you get involved and provide a final nudge, we can finally end this long and tragic conflict. I am 99 percent confident you can do it."

The key to this scenario is that the Israelis and Palestinians really do have to be that close to an agreement. And the problem is that there's hardly any reason to expect that to happen, unless the Netanyahu government changes its position significantly. (Israel has to do more compromising than the Palestinians because the latter doesn't have much more to give up, having already agreed to no more than 22 percent of the territory and to an unfavorable division of Jerusalem.) Remember that Netanyahu opposed the Oslo agreement in 1993 and his own vision of a "Palestinian state" is nothing more than disconnected Bantustans under de facto Israeli control. Even the most compromised and compliant Palestinian leader is not going to agree to that. But key members of Netanyahu's new coalition would never go along with anything more generous. 

Similarly, a meaningful final status agreement will depend on getting Hamas to go along, and they aren't going to agree to even a long-term truce (hudna) for anything less than a sovereign state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza. To make matters worse, the civil war in Syria and the turmoil in countries like Egypt is going to make Israelis even more skittish about major compromises, for understandable reasons. Result: stalemate.

So even if Kerry revives the Arab League initiative (possibly modified to accommodate Israeli preferences), I don't see how he can get the two parties close enough to a deal to convince Obama to take the leap. 

Instead, what we will see is Kabuki diplomacy: a Potemkin peace process that burns up time and jet fuel and makes it look like the United States still cares about this issue and is still in some sense interested in the Palestinians' fate. What we are not going to see is real diplomatic progress, let alone a final peace agreement. And after twenty-plus years of post-Oslo failure, a flurry of meaningless diplomatic activity isn't going to fool anyone anymore.

Unless, of course, the parties prove me wrong. I hope they do, but nobody ever lost money betting the other way.

 UPDATE:  When I wrote this post yesterday, I really didn't know that the Netanyahu government was going to immediately trash Kerry's proposals.   See Ha'aretz here and Larry Derfner of +972 here.   But I can't say I'm surprised, and at this point, you shouldn't be either.

Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Seoul food for thought

How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.

According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.  

But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.

Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.

I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.