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Chill Out, John Kerry

Advice for the new secretary of state about Israeli-Palestinian relations

Getty/Drew Angerer

Here we go again. 

A recently minted American secretary of state eager to burnish his foreign policy credentials barely a day after his confirmation has already called both the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president to discuss the importance of trying to resume the peace process and to express America’s commitment to Arab-Israeli peace. 

Even though his own travel plans were slightly upstaged by the president’s announcement of a trip to Israel in March, John Kerry is already planning his first Middle East junket. 

Having watched and played a role in this long movie for many years, I understand the temptation and the importance of America getting involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. I also understand that in a second term, waiting too long to do something likely means that it won’t get done. And it’s clear, however wary President Barack Obama is about leaping into the Israeli-Palestinian fray, he doesn’t want the two-state solution to expire on his watch.

Still, without prejudicing what the administration eventually does on the peace issue, here are some dos and don’ts that the new secretary might want to consider.

Don’t try to launch negotiations

The last thing we need (or Kerry needs) is another abortive effort to get talks going. The inconvenient truth is that if you put Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in a room tomorrow, their talks would fail galactically. The gaps on the two least contentious issues (borders and security) are large; the divide on the identity issues (Jerusalem and refugees) are yawning. What’s required now are separate discussions conducted by the U.S.—low key and quiet—not noisy enterprises generated by secretarial trips and visits to the White House. Diagnose the problem before you rush toward fixing it. Maybe you’ll have a chance of producing a better outcome.

Don’t crowd the Israelis and Palestinians (yet)

The Israeli coalition’s negotiations may take weeks; it makes little sense for Kerry to go out to the region before the next government is formed. The coalition hasn’t hammered out its terms on the peace issue yet, and an American effort to somehow influence them will backfire. Maybe Obama and Kerry believe they can influence these terms with the announcement of the president’s trip; and with talk of negotiations over unity between Hamas and Fatah picking up steam, perhaps Kerry believes that an early trip will allow him to warn Abbas what to avoid or embrace in this complex Egyptian-orchestrated tango. He can’t. We’ve never had much success in playing Palestinian or Israeli politics when it comes to these internal matters. In fact, we can do damage, particularly on the Israeli side. Kerry needs to find a way to at least test the proposition that he can work with Netanyahu – not corner him. There may well come a time when the U.S. needs to try shape public opinion, but not this early in the game. that’s better left to Obama when he visits in march.

Don’t be breathless

The last thing you should do at the beginning of a negotiation is to demonstrate more urgency than the locals themselves. We can certainly overdo this by waiting too long; a secretary of state’s capital, particularly in a second term, will rapidly diminish. If Kerry isn’t careful, though, he’ll become part of the furniture—too familiar to the parties, and thus, taken for granted. How many times can an American secretary of state visit the region without something to offer, and without producing something tangible, before his or her own credibility is irreparably damaged? And travelling to show the flag or talk about America’s commitment without a strategy will be perceived quickly for what it is—yet another demonstration that the emperor has no clothes. The notion of a peace process made sense in the 1990s because it actually produced results.But the bar in the region for what the locals consider a serious U.S. initiative is now much higher. Kerry needs to factor this into to his travel plans. Being the energizer bunny of U.S. diplomacy on the peace process has a downside.

Organize your own house first

Before running out to the region, Kerry needs to make sure of a couple things.

First, where does the president stand, and how much leeway will Kerry have? Obama is the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon: He doesn’t delegate, he dominates. Right now, Israelis are focused on Obama’s trip to the region, not Kerry’s. If Kerry doesn’t want to be seen as a potted plant, he needs to make sure the Israelis know the president has taken him into his confidence on what the U.S. approach will be; if Kerry wants to be seen as a player, he must own the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and get the president to empower him.

And second, Kerry needs to put together a strong team—a mix of insiders and outsiders (FSOs and political appointees) controlled by him but who will be dedicated full time to the enterprise. No self-respecting secretary of State contracts this issue out to some high-level poobah, unless the White Houser forces the issue.

The new Israeli Government—more centrist and broader—may well create additional options on the Palestinian issue. But Kerry needs to think this through and slow down right now, not speed things up.  He can’t possibly develop a strategy without talking to the parties in the region. But he should do that after the Israeli government is formed, and as part of broader regional tour. Not much will happen until Obama sits down with Netanyahu in March anyway. 

And above all, Mr. Secretary, don’t raise expectations now. You’ll just end up spending the next few years walking them back.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. He served as an adviser on the Middle East during both Republican and Democratic administrations.