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Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry's Peace-Process Efforts

Negotiating like Jim Baker

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Right now, and perhaps for a good while to come, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in serious trouble. That doesn’t mean the almighty process won’t continue. All sides need it for different reasons. And like rock-and-roll, it will never really die.

Reaching a conflict-ending agreement, however, is another matter. I’d venture to say that even if you invited Jesus, Moses, and Muhammed down as negotiators, they couldn’t find a way to sort things out. 

But what about former Secretary of State James A. Baker, without a doubt the best negotiator since Henry Kissinger—and, as George H.W. Bush told me, a real tough trader too. Could Baker see his way through the current travails of the peace process? 

In fairness to Secretary Kerry, who’s worked long and hard on this process, the circumstances he and Baker confronted were vastly different. Baker was going for a three-day peace conference in Madrid; Kerry has embarked on a mission to resolve the core issues of Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. Back then the U.S. enjoyed a rare moment of unmatched power in the wake of pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait; now Washington is neither feared, respected, nor much admired in this region. 

Still, circumstances and substance aside, Baker had at least five key rules that helped him succeed. Would they work now if applied? And could John Kerry benefit from them? Let’s take a look.

Rule Number 1: Make sure your president has your back

This is a tough one. I’m not at all sure that Barack Obama has Kerry’s in the same way Bush 41 had Baker’s. First, Bush 41 really cared about the issue of Arab-Israeli peace and had given his personal word to the Gulf Arabs that after throwing Saddam out of Kuwait, he’d make a real push. In short, Arab-Israeli peace was considered a vital U.S. national interest and a presidential priority.

It clearly isn’t now, and I’m not arguing that it should be. There are other Middle East priorities—like stopping an Iranian bomb—that are more important to Obama than solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He needs someone to manage his headache in the Holy Land; enter John Kerry. But nothing the president has done until now suggests he’s ready to put real currency on the table, let alone open up a fight with Israel. Indeed, Kerry is and should be wary of how much support he really does have from the White House.

Rule Number 2: Don’t become a believer

Above all no zeal, the French diplomat Talleyrand used to say. It’s good advice, particularly if believing clouds your judgment and skews how you see what is possible and what isn’t. Jim Baker was no sentimentalist on this one. I remember congratulating him after his success at Madrid and he told me to keep my expectations low. He knew he’d done something quite consequential, but he was never a man on some kind of crusade or mission. In fact, that day Baker half-jokingly told me I should get off the peace train while the ride was good because it could be all downhill from the here. 

From everyone I talk to on the U.S., Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab side, it seems that John Kerry really is a believer in this. Nothing wrong with that unless you start believing that somehow you can do this, or that there’s no cost for repeatedly trying and failing, or, even worse, that you think you can achieve a conflict-ending agreement when it’s not possible now with the raw material you have. Far too often Kerry sounds like a prophet, warning of violence, boycotts, bad demography—warnings that are largely directed at Israel if the peace process doesn’t succeed. All of these things may well come true. But to treat his own effort as if it were the last chance for peacemaking until the end of days is a bit narcissistic. More to the point, it really doesn’t do much to help your efforts, and indeed may harm them. 

Rule Number 3: Threaten to walk away

At least on three occasions, with Hafez Assad, Shamir, and the Palestinians, Baker slammed his notebook shut and threatened to walk away. And that kind of staged theatrics—backed up by real anger and frustration—worked. Kerry hasn’t done this and probably won’t. 

Part of the reason is that everyone loves the guy, and even when they won’t do what he wants, they keep telling him how great and valuable he is. In the past several weeks I ran into both Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni; I haven't heard praise like that about an American since Bill Clinton left the Middle East. Nobody ever told me they loved Jim Baker. But love wasn’t important; results were. Kerry can’t give up. He’s got too much invested in the process and believes in it too much. But as Baker would tell you, sometimes to get something you need to threaten to walk away from it.  

Rule Number 4: Use honey and vinegar

Bush 41 and Baker were pretty tough when it came to Israel. And that toughness wasn’t just expressed rhetorically, though there was plenty of that too. Dealing with Yitzhak Shamir, an Israeli Prime Minister who made even Menachem Begin look mild by comparison, they simply were not prepared to let Israel take the U.S. for granted and continue settlement activity in the face of their serious diplomacy. Don’t get me wrong—there were plenty of deliverables too, such as historic negotiations with Syria and an international conference that was made in heaven for the Israelis. But they declined Shamir’s desire for 10 billion in housing loan guarantees, outflanked him in Congress, sent a strong signal that there would be costs to continued settlement activity, and got the prime minister to Madrid too. 

This administration hasn’t yet demonstrated much toughness because there hasn’t yet been a fight worth having with the Israelis. The one that would be worth having—with both Israelis and Palestinians—is if the gaps on the final status issues were ever close enough to bridge, a deal was actually in sight, and it needed real U.S. leverage to get to the finish line. Whether this administration would be willing to use honey and vinegar to get there, particularly with the Israelis, is still very much an open question. There’s very little in John Kerry’s nice guy image that suggests it. And I’m not sure Barack Obama cares enough about the issue to not just get mad at Israel, but to do something about it.  

Rule Number 5: If the peace process collapses, make sure the U.S. doesn’t take the hit. 

Baker always knew that if the Madrid thing collapsed, neither he nor the President would ever take the blame. And he was prepared to—and did on occasion—deploy the threat to leave his famous dead cat on the doorstep of whomever wouldn’t go along with his process. The fact is, Baker was right. The major share of responsibility for this process—if it works or doesn’t—belongs with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And Baker wasn’t going to be guilted into believing otherwise. Bush 41 would never consider blaming the collapse of the process on Baker, and I hope that this White House wouldn’t do that to John Kerry either. If the Kerry effort can’t be rehabilitated, then the dead cat should be placed exactly where it belongs—on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. 

That serious people try to question or attack the notion that the U.S. can’t want peace more than the parties themselves is nonsense. You want progress in this process, get the two sides to own it more themselves. Then maybe something serious might happen. In the meantime, John Kerry ought to consider borrowing a piece of advice of two from Jim Baker. It might even help the peace process. And even if it didn’t, it sure as hell might make the Secretary feel better and America look better too. 

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.