WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Having worked for six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, I nearly fell off my chair the other day when I read Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comment to reporters that diplomacy wasn't about making deals.
Maybe "making deals" is too glib a phrase for her, but it's precisely what effective American diplomacy in the Middle East is mostly about. Her legacy may well be judged by that standard.
The secretary is absolutely correct in asserting, as she did, that diplomacy is more than deal-making. Success or failure depends on a good reading of the circumstances and on a strategic grasp of whether and when to engage as a mediator. There's a big difference between taking the initiative and wanting a U.S. initiative. This is particularly true in the Arab-Israeli arena, where changing regional conditions have preceded every major breakthrough.
Henry A. Kissinger's successful "disengagement" diplomacy - separating Syrian, Israeli and Egyptian forces in the early 1970s - followed the 1973 war, which had overturned every major assumption of U.S. policy and forced the combatants to consider negotiations. President Jimmy Carter's success in brokering Egyptian-Israeli peace flowed from Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem. James A. Baker III's success in putting together the 1991 Madrid peace conference grew out of the Persian Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Shifting tectonic plates, however, are a necessary but not sufficient condition for diplomatic achievement. In these cases, what was also required was Washington's willingness and determination to broker a deal.
Mr. Kissinger's success, for example, required 18 months of listening to Arab and Israeli grievances, coaxing the parties, reassuring them and balancing their interests. His 34-day shuttle to consummate the deal between Israel and Syria is the longest time a secretary of state has spent outside the U.S. on a diplomatic mission, with the exception of Robert Lansing at the Versailles peace conference.
The issue today, of course, is not what to do when you're faced with an obvious historic opportunity but how to make progress on a smaller scale. President Bill Clinton faced such a situation in 1996. He confronted the challenge of a tough Israeli prime minister and a suspicious Palestine Liberation Organization chairman who had fundamentally different views on peace and no trust or confidence in the process. In a display of masterful deal-making, Mr. Clinton spent more than a week pulling and pushing Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu into an agreement that was hardly perfect but did save lives and kept the process going. That summit was preceded by nine months of stage-setting by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and her team.
Ms. Rice faces a tougher situation. Weak Israeli and Palestinian leaders, nonstate actors (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) and Iranian troublemaking have produced a volatile mix. She's also constrained by an administration that, in the face of 9/11, the war on terror, the Iranian challenge and the battle between Islamist radicals and moderates, views diplomacy as ineffective.
Yet now is precisely the time to exercise that instrument of American power. The situation between Israelis and Palestinians, as hopeless as it appears, cries out for serious American attention. A solution to their conflict won't fix Iraq or end the threat of radical Islam, but it will enhance our credibility, strengthen our friends and reduce the opportunities for our enemies to mobilize Arabs and Muslims against us.
Ms. Rice's decision to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority is a good beginning. To have any chance of succeeding, the administration will have to develop a sustained two-year effort and a strategy that - for both sides - is balanced, tough and reassuring. In the end, it will require Ms. Rice to accept the obvious fact that diplomacy - and its hundreds of hours of problem-solving - is really about making deals after all.
Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He advised secretaries of state from George P. Shultz to Colin L. Powell. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.