Daniel Kurtzer
Bitterlemons (Blog)
July 7, 2011 - 12:00am

Mediators matter, especially in the Arab-Israel conflict, where all parties have looked to the United States to play the role of third party helper. During the more than 30 years of active American mediation, the parties have sometimes defined what they wanted the US to do or to avoid doing, but they have not defined clearly the structure or functioning of the mediator's role. It is time to consider these issues, at least because successful American mediation has helped broker agreements in the past, and unsuccessful American mediation efforts have contributed to the failure of peace talks during the past 20 years.

The United States has experimented with a variety of mediation models since the early 1970s. After the 1973 war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expended enormous time and effort in shuttle diplomacy, resulting in three disengagement agreements involving Israel, Egypt and Syria. The Egyptian-Israeli agreements laid the foundation for the 1979 peace treaty, and the Syrian-Israeli agreement has proved remarkably durable for more than three decades. Kissinger, as mediator, displayed remarkable negotiation prowess and staying power, but he also benefited from a strong supporting staff and from the intimate relationship he had with President Richard Nixon.

President Jimmy Carter was, in many ways, his own negotiator, playing a hands-on role during the protracted Camp David negotiations in 1978 and the peace treaty endgame in 1979. Carter, too, had a very strong team, and he empowered them to do the necessary pre-negotiations work that helped prepare for Camp David. It cannot be forgotten that the parties went to Camp David having already discussed a detailed US draft at Leeds Castle.

A third American success was registered during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III acted as the primary American mediator in constructing the terms of reference and agreed structure of the Madrid peace conference. Baker shuttled to the Middle East eight times, assisted by a small group of trusted aides and supported by US ambassadors in the field. Throughout, he enjoyed the trust and confidence of the president.

While each of these successful mediations was different, there were some key commonalities:

* Clear empowerment of the mediator, whether by the president or secretary of state. In none of these cases did inter-agency squabbling or backbiting inhibit the American diplomatic effort.
* Persistence and determination. None of these cases was a guaranteed success, and each presented formidable obstacles--substantive and political--for the parties. Yet the American mediators did not take "no" for an answer, but rather persisted and showed backbone.
* Strong sense of strategy and tactics, including flexibility. In all cases, American strategy was clear and tactics made sense, but also changed as a result of circumstances. Objectives remained, even as tactical flexibility was evident.
* Ability to weather crises. In each case, there was a US-Israel crisis of one kind or another. The 1975 Sinai II accord was held up by severe disagreement, leading to an American "reassessment" that included delayed delivery of needed aircraft. The peace treaty talks in 1978-79 were marked by sharp differences over settlements. And the Madrid process almost faltered over a blow-up in bilateral ties relating to loan guarantees and settlements. Yet, the American mediators, working with willing Israeli leaders, overcame these crises and achieved the desired objective.
* Strong negotiating skills. Kissinger, Carter and Baker were all exemplary negotiators and, in many respects, consummate actors. They all knew how to negotiate and how to interact with the diverse leaders across the table. Not all strategies and tactics worked, but these mediators proved to be adept and adaptable, always keeping their eye on the objective.
* Strong, diverse and professional staffs. The roster of senior aides and ambassadors who assisted the US mediators reads like a "Who's Who" of American diplomacy. Although the three mediators were outsized personalities in their own right, they were wise enough to surround themselves with knowledgeable aides and to rely heavily on the ambassadors in the field.

Since the Madrid Conference in 1991, the US has tried different models of mediation. The Clinton administration appointed a "Special Middle East Coordinator" who reported to the secretary of state, operated outside the normal bureaucratic structure of the State Department and conducted diplomacy largely independently of the rest of the bureaucracy and US ambassadors in the field.

The George W. Bush administration eschewed envoys or mediators until 2008, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled frequently to the region following the Annapolis Conference. She brought few ideas to the table, did not by and large seek to mediate disputes between the parties and offered few bridging proposals to narrow or close gaps. The Obama administration appointed a special envoy, who reported to, but who did not enjoy a deep relationship with, the president. Fits and starts in US strategy and tactics largely made the envoy's role superfluous, resulting in his departure after two years of effort.

While it is overly simplistic to measure the factors that helped account for the early successes against the absence of these factors during the later period marked by American failures, this provides much to think about. Indeed, it is worth considering whether, in 2011, an empowered American envoy who enjoys strong presidential trust, who exhibits the characteristics of persistence and determination that allow him/her to weather crises, and whose strong negotiating and interpersonal skills, built around a strong strategy and sound tactics and complemented by a strong supporting cast, could make a difference in helping to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict.


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