How can Secretary of State John Kerry succeed in the "Mission Impossible" of negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement when he faces the same intractable issues that have derailed so many previous peacemaking efforts?
Skepticism about Kerry's project is nearly universal, and it's understandable when you look at the graveyard of past negotiations. But there are some interesting dynamics beneath the surface that should make observers cautious about premature burial announcements.
What Kerry has done, in effect, is get the two sides to grab hold of a stick of dynamite. If they can't defuse it within nine months through an agreement, it's going to blow up: The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank would collapse; militant Palestinians would take statehood to the United Nations, probably this time with broad European support; an angry Arab League would withdraw its peace initiative. It would be a big mess for everyone.
Tzipi Livni, the chief Israeli negotiator, recalled at a State Department ceremony Tuesday that when she first talked with Kerry about a new round of peace talks five months ago, he told her that "failure is not an option." By pushing the two sides into an actual negotiation, Kerry has put some teeth into that bromide. If they fail this time, it will cost the parties dearly, probably Israel most of all. That provides a harsh leverage for Washington.
Kerry's second advantage is that he's ready to be an active broker in this deal, rather than a passive listener or mediator. When the two sides reach impasses, or get bogged down on side issues, Kerry will seek to break the logjam with U.S. proposals. By putting a nine-month fuse on his dynamite stick, Kerry limits stalling tactics of the sort adopted in the past by both sides.
Choosing Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel, as special envoy to the talks is another useful prod. Indyk remains so well-known in Israel that when he visits, people treat him as if he were the permanent U.S. representative. Pity the regular ambassador.
Through his work at the Brookings Institution and its Saban Center, Indyk has gathered a copious network of personal contacts across the Middle East. He can request favors and call in chits from around the region. Indyk is a longtime friend, so I can't pretend to be objective about him. But I think many would agree that because of Indyk's experience and contacts, it will be hard for either side to game him.
The negotiations will also have the momentum of a big team of U.S. experts that will be ready to advise both sides on technical issues, such as water and energy. And John Allen, the retired Marine general who was U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will continue to consult with the Israelis about how the U.S. can help them meet security challenges posed by a Palestinian state.
An intriguing option for Kerry is a settlement that leaves unresolved some especially difficult issues, such as the status and division of Jerusalem. Michael Gordon and Isabel Kershner made this point in The New York Times Tuesday when they noted that a deal wouldn't necessarily mean "the end of claims by either side." They could continue to disagree about who controls the al-Aqsa mosque, say, or the Western Wall. But for Israel to get the benefits of a full cessation of the conflict, it would have to resolve the hardest issues.
Kerry hasn't yet gotten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse the U.S. position on the borders of the Palestinian state, despite strenuous efforts. But Kerry has assured the Palestinians that the U.S. favors the 1967 lines, plus mutually agreed swaps, a formula that should allow most West Bank settlers to remain within Israel.
The borders question is, at bottom, an Israeli political issue. Naftali Bennett, one of Netanyahu's coalition partners, speaks passionately for the interests of the settlers, who want the issue to go away. But many Israelis would agree with the view expressed by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has said that withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with border swaps, would be acceptable.
One way to think about these negotiations is that they're a kind of benign trap. Once the prey have been lured inside, it's difficult for them to escape without either accomplishing the great work of peace or damaging themselves. Kerry would surely dispute that analogy. But unless it's valid — unless failure really isn't an option here because it would be so damaging — then the naysayers will probably be right.
David Ignatius is a syndicated writer in Washington. His email address is email@example.com.