Time for a New U.S. Peace-Process Team

With the election of Ehud Barak, Israel has a new team in place to pursue peace. Though some holdovers from the Rabin/Peres days hold prominent positions in the government, Barak has his own views and has brought in like-minded colleagues to help implement them. By contrast, the U.S. peace team remains essentially the same as it has been since Clinton was elected. In fact, many of the key State Department officials date back to the days when Shamir was in office. So while Israel has had five Prime Ministers with very different views and styles, the Americans involved in the negotiations have hardly changed. It’s time for a shakeup.

It is valuable to have people involved in the peace process who have been around long enough to know all the history and the players, but the reality is the U.S. team has not been effective and their stubborn insistence on clinging to outdated notions has consistently hindered progress. It should come as no surprise given the U.S. role in the past that Barak has made clear he prefers the Americans to remain in the background of the negotiations.

I write these words while Madeleine Albright is in the Middle East and likely to come home having helped push the Israelis and Palestinians to finalize a new agreement on the implementation of the Wye accord. This does not invalidate my point. The truth is any Secretary of State by virtue of representing the most powerful nation on earth and Israel’s sole ally has the leverage to move the parties. In fact, the reason her trip was needed was because of the U.S. peace team’s ill-advised policies that led to Wye in the first place. As you recall, it was the State Department that pressured Israel to accept a specific territorial withdrawal even though the prior agreements had left the amount to the Israelis. Barak recognized this was a terrible deal and appears to have succeeded in modifying it somewhat.

Now that Barak has brought new energy and ideas to the peace process, it is vital to jettison the baggage State Department Middle East experts have been lugging for decades. For example, holding the usual four-five hour meetings with Hafez Assad and coming out declaring that he is interested in peace is not going to advance the Syrian track. The United States has utterly failed in its policy toward Syria for more than 20 years and probably could be most helpful by staying out of the way altogether. The deal in the north is clear: Israel withdraws from most or all of the Golan in exchange for an Egypt-like peace treaty with certain security guarantees. The question is not what the U.S. can do to negotiate that deal, but whether Assad is finally willing to accept it.

Another example is Jerusalem. The State Department can’t stand the idea of Jerusalem being recognized as Israel’s capital. Why? Maybe it’s because only a handful of diplomats work in Israel and hundreds work in Arab and Islamic countries that are appalled by the idea that Jews should be anywhere near one of their holy places. So long as the Administration sticks to its “the final status of Jerusalem is a matter for negotiations” line, the Palestinians and other Muslims (and many Christians!) hold out the hope that Israel can be forced to relinquish control of the city. A declaration that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the establishment of our embassy there ends this delusion, but it won’t come from this peace team.

The State Department’s love affair with the Palestinians continues unaffected by the corruption and human rights abuses of the Palestinian Authority, the murder of American citizens by Palestinian terrorists, Palestinian support for America’s enemies and Yasir Arafat’s intransigence. The diplomats remain convinced that Israel is the obstacle to peace and that pressure on whomever is in power will yield their lifelong messianic dream of a comprehensive peace. Barak is already feeling the heat. What is needed are officials who pressure Arafat to clean up his act and who don’t have their entire professional lives invested in reaching agreements.

When sports teams fail to win a championship after several years with the same personnel, they make changes. If diplomacy were a sport, the U.S. peace team would have a losing record. It’s time for a change. Bring in some new players with fresh ideas to match the new energy on the Israeli side.

Realistically, it’s not likely Clinton will make changes now. Few serious people would want to join the last year of an administration anyway. But, hey, if the diplomats can dream of a messianic age, why can’t I?