Shadow Government

To Get an Israeli-Palestinian Agreement, U.S. Needs to Re-engage in the Mideast

Having coaxed Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after an unprecedented drought of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry can claim at least a measure of vindication for his seemingly single-minded focus on the peace process. But now that negotiations have commenced, that same single-mindedness could prove the talks' undoing and the unraveling of Kerry's achievement.

In approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry was wise to put aside the settlements-first approach that bedeviled the Obama administration's first term. The process that Kerry has put together appears instead to pick up, structurally speaking at least, where the 2007-2008 "Annapolis process" between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas left off. 

That process comprised not only high-level talks on the so-called "core issues" of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem, but also a number of other pillars: economic cooperation and institution-building, Palestinian security reform, regional security cooperation, and Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Kerry has quietly pursued similar tracks, announcing a multibillion-dollar initiative to bolster the Palestinian economy, naming Gen. John Allen as an envoy for regional security issues, and securing the endorsement of the Arab League for his proposals, all in recent weeks.

However, the challenges now facing the parties are much steeper than those at the time of Annapolis. 

The first and foremost of these challenges is the turmoil gripping the surrounding region. The Arab League's endorsement is just the first and easiest contribution regional states will be asked to make. To ensure its security can be maintained despite the loss of West Bank territories, Israel will need to reach cooperative arrangements -- not just the sometimes frosty peace that exists today -- with Egypt and Jordan. For a Palestinian state to succeed, it will need intimate commercial and economic links -- not just the hand-to-mouth aid received today -- with neighbors.

But today the neighborhood is more a source of distraction than support for the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli leaders worry about chaos in Syria and Egypt, as well as the burden imposed on Lebanon and Jordan by the Syrian civil war. They worry even more about Iran and its nuclear ambitions and regional adventurism. For his part, Abbas must worry about the regional resurgence of political Islam, of which his rival, Hamas, is the local manifestation. Allies that were once staunchly supportive, such as Turkey and Qatar, have recently been more supportive of Abbas's Islamist rivals, while other former stalwarts like Egypt and Jordan are consumed with internal issues.

Another major challenge facing Israel and the Palestinians is the position of the United States in the region. The United States has long been looked toward as not only an honest broker in the peace process, but a guarantor of whatever arrangements that process produced and of Israel's security as it gives up hard-won territory. It is no accident that major episodes in the peace process have coincided with major U.S. security commitments to the region.

Now, both U.S. roles are in question. Washington's position as an honest broker is a function not of its neutrality or equidistance from the two parties, but of its closeness to both. Despite being perceived as pro-Israel, the United States has also been the most consistent and pragmatic advocate of a Palestinian state and contributor of aid and expertise to the Palestinian Authority. Under President Barack Obama, the United States and Israel have drifted apart, and the U.S.-Palestinian relationship has also soured as Abbas has expressed bitterness over shifts in American strategy and pursued gambits at the United Nations disapproved of by Washington.

The United States' role as guarantor can also no longer be easily assumed. The widespread perception in the Middle East is that the United States is experiencing "Mideast fatigue" in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and would prefer to disengage. This has manifested itself not only in the uncertainty that marks U.S. policy in places like Egypt and Syria, but in deteriorating alliances across the region. This inevitably will reduce the value and credibility of U.S. security assurances to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, for which there is no alternative outside power to turn.

The final challenge the parties face is themselves. The Annapolis conference took place following years of violence -- the Second Intifada in the first part of the decade, followed by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In contrast, the past five years have largely been peaceful, providing no great incentive to depart from the status quo. 

Both parties also face internal challenges: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must balance compromise with the Palestinians against the views of coalition partners and members of his own party who are skeptical that territorial concessions will bring peace or security. Abbas must deal not only with Islamists who continue to preach war against Israel, but also his own apparent reluctance to sign on the dotted line. After his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, rejected an Israeli offer in 2000 at Camp David and he rejected an even more far-reaching offer in 2008, it is reasonable to question whether Abbas has the strength or confidence to compromise.

It is these challenges on which the United States must now focus. This is one of the paradoxes of the peace process: If the United States wants a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, it must focus on everything but the so-called "core issues" that will be at the heart of the negotiations. It has been frequently but incorrectly claimed that the solutions to those issues are well-known; the broad outlines may be clear, but the devil is truly in the details, which are anything but. Nevertheless, those details must be worked out by the parties who know them well and can in any event draw upon the myriad plans and ideas already put forward. 

For its part, Washington should run interference for the two parties -- thwarting the efforts of spoilers to derail the process, lining up support from regional and international partners whose priorities are elsewhere, bolstering Netanyahu and Abbas to the extent possible, and, in so doing, providing space to the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. This implies an altogether different approach to the Middle East than that which has characterized the first five years of Obama's tenure -- one that stresses deep engagement not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian talks themselves, but in the conflicts, politics, and alliances of the region from which Washington has of late appeared keen to disengage.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

National Security

Remembering Judge Bill Clark, Cold War Advisor to Reagan

The finest national security advisor you've never heard of died Saturday, Aug. 10. Judge Bill Clark served as President Ronald Reagan's national security advisor for just under two years, from January 1982 to October 1983. These crucial years marked the foundational period in Reagan's Cold War policy. During this window, Reagan began to implement his strategy for confronting the Soviet Union and bringing it to a point of negotiations and collapse. Reagan's strategy, highly controversial at the time but now more appreciated in hindsight, depended on Clark to channel the president's vision and translate it into doctrines and specific policies.

Why is Clark so little remembered today? The position of the assistant to the president for national security affairs (NSA for short) has been defined in the popular mind by luminous giants such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, who wielded tremendous influence while at the White House and have continued to have a prominent public voice in the decades since. Not so the self-effacing Clark, who never wrote a memoir, gave few interviews, and otherwise seldom spoke out after leaving office, content instead to repair to his beloved California ranch. Clark's historical reputation was also diminished by a few of the memoirs written by some of his former Reagan administration colleagues that unfortunately tried to settle old policy scores at Clark's expense (and to which the devout former seminarian generally turned the other cheek). For example, former Secretary of State George Shultz's otherwise superb memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, is, to my mind, unduly critical of Clark.

In a regrettably revealing display of the stale conventional wisdom that ignores Clark's legacy, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post even saw fit to write a dedicated obituary of him. Instead both merely ran this minimalist treatment by the Associated Press that devotes but two sentences to his tenure as national security advisor. Clark's legacy, as well as the history of the Cold War, deserves better. (Some conservative outlets have shown a greater appreciation for Clark; see especially this thoughtful remembrance by Steven Hayward over at Power Line, or this one by K-Lo at National Review. For an affectionate tribute from the journalist who knew Reagan and Clark best, see this from the indispensable Lou Cannon).

Part of the reason for the prevailing underestimation of Clark, then and now, was his relative lack of foreign-policy experience -- a deficiency he readily admitted. His résumé was indeed thin; before becoming national advisor he served only one year as deputy secretary of state, which in turn only came after an embarrassing Senate confirmation hearing that highlighted his callowness in the field. Yet Clark also possessed several attributes that proved essential to his successful tenure as NSA. These included a close personal relationship with Reagan, a shared set of convictions about the nature of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, organizational acumen, and the loyalty and affection of his staff.

Clark was Reagan's alter ego. Rejecting the prevailing conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union was stable and destined to coexist with the United States as a perpetual rival, Reagan and Clark instead saw the USSR as vulnerable and sought to exacerbate its internal contradictions. The pillars of this strategy included launching a massive arms buildup that would stress the fragile Soviet economy in a failed effort to keep pace, highlighting the Soviet Union's illegitimacy through ideological and economic warfare and active support for political and religious dissidents, and transforming the perverse nuclear trap of mutually assured destruction. At the National Security Council, Clark developed these insights through an ambitious series of national security decision directives and implemented the strategy through new measures as varied as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Now that the Reagan administration archives are beginning to be opened and declassified, the process of historical scholarship should hopefully begin to restore Clark's reputation as an essential architect of American Cold War policy. For scholars, I hope this will serve as yet another caution against relying excessively on conventional wisdom and personal memoirs. For policy practitioners, Clark's role as NSA serves as a reminder that while foreign- policy knowledge is important, ultimately it is secondary to wisdom, integrity, the unreserved trust of the president, and the right set of policy convictions.

Not long ago I had dinner with a former Reagan NSC staff member who had served under several of Reagan's NSAs. I asked his assessment of Clark. Without hesitation came his firm response: "Bill Clark won the Cold War."

An exaggeration, perhaps, but not as much as the prevailing neglect of Clark's legacy would have you believe. With his death the nation has lost a great and a good man. May he rest in peace.

Photo from 1985: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images