Shadow Government

What Washington is Missing in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

The recent near-collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry's Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts unleashed the characteristic wave of criticism that predictably follows in the wake of such setbacks. Yet indulging in finger-pointing, wishing that the parties had different positions, or throwing up our hands and walking away will lead nowhere. 

Secretary Kerry was not wrong to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace -- doing so is in our interest and is an important element of American leadership in the region. Yet he should not seek to reconstitute the process as it previously stood. It was tactically flawed, insofar as it required both leaders to take political risks for a scant payoff, namely the promulgation of an American "framework document" and the continuation of talks whose odds seemed bleak. 

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, facing a public enamored of the false hope of unilateral statehood via accumulated U.N. agency memberships, never engaged enthusiastically in the talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged with vigor but, facing the likelihood that Abbas would reject the framework document, dooming it to immediate irrelevance, had little incentive to incur the political cost of releasing Palestinian prisoners or blocking housing tenders.

Secretary Kerry has argued that it is better to try and fail at peace than not to try at all, but failure has a cost. The majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, according to a recent poll by Shibley Telhami, support a two-state solution, but nearly half of both publics do not believe it can be achieved and only a quarter on either side have confidence in their own negotiators or the American mediators. A high-profile failure deepens that pessimism and feeds enthusiasm for counterproductive alternatives.

The question, therefore, is not whether to have a peace process, but what approach can stabilize the peace talks and increase long-term chances for producing an agreement. There are four elements that the Obama administration should incorporate going forward.

First, there can be no substitute for direct engagement between the parties themselves. Unable to obtain direct Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on final-status issues, Kerry substituted parallel U.S.-Israel and U.S.-Palestinian discussions, and substituted as its product an American statement for a bilateral agreement. This may have seemed like a diplomatic expedient, but faltered for the simple reason that its benefits did not outweigh its costs to the parties.

Realistically, emphasizing direct dialogue means lowering the talks' profile and accepting that progress will initially come on less divisive issues like economics and security. It also means dispensing with overly-ambitious deadlines, and accepting that merely handing off a healthy process to President Obama's successor in 2017 would be a worthwhile accomplishment.

Second, a greater emphasis should be placed on Palestinian economic growth and reform. Doing so helps Palestinians focus on what they stand to gain through peace, not just what they believe they will lose. It also reassures Israelis that their Palestinian neighbor will not be a failed state. The West Bank economy stagnated in 2013 after several years of growth, and the PA's finances deteriorated. As the recent Arab uprisings demonstrate vividly, such downturns and dashed expectations can prove deeply destabilizing. 

Mindful of this, Secretary Kerry launched a commendable economic initiative for Palestinians last month in Prague. Such initiatives are insufficient, however -- peace talks and economics are inextricably linked. 

Setbacks in the negotiations and political instability heightens the uncertainty facing would-be investors and entrepreneurs, and threatens Israeli cooperation on clearance revenues and movement restrictions, all of which are vital to Palestinian economic growth. In addition, donor aid surges when negotiations are going well, and dwindles during diplomatic lulls; it is also negatively affected by corruption in the PA, which has reportedly grown even as political institution-building has stagnated. From 2008, the height of the "Annapolis Process" to 2011, aid fell by half.

Third, the United States should repudiate the so-called "BDS movement," which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, rather than attempting to use the specter of boycotts to spur Israel along. Israel is more likely to take risks when it feels secure. The BDS movement, the stated aims of which go well beyond the achievement of a reasonable peace accord, accomplishes the opposite -- it persuades Israel that the campaign against its existence as a Jewish state will not cease even with an agreement. 

Furthermore, damaging the Israeli economy hurts Palestinians as well. They are dependent on Israel economically for employment and as an export market, meaning that Israeli economic downturns reverberate painfully in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, the success of a future Palestinian state will depend vitally on economic cooperation with Israel; that cooperation will be undermined by boycotts and sanctions. The Palestinians' supporters would do far better to focus on bolstering the Palestinian economy through reform, transparency, aid, and investment, than in undermining Israel's.

Finally, as is the case with so many other issues, our peace efforts would benefit from more robust engagement with Arab states. They can be a source of both aid and political cover for Abbas, can marginalize rejectionists like Hamas, and can offer Israel better regional integration. Secretary Kerry commendably persuaded the Arab League to amend the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to endorse land swaps, and should build on that success.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe to be solved, nor will it benefit right now from yet another high-level diplomatic push. But that does not mean we should neglect it, and step back that much further from regional leadership.

JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

At Midterm, Iran's Implementation of Its Nuclear Obligations Gets an 'F'

The latest round of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the April 8-9 talks that just concluded in Vienna, marked a midpoint between the interim accord of Jan. 20 and the July 20 date to sign a permanent deal. So how's Iran doing at midterm? Let me put it this way: If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were my student at Michigan or Georgetown and I graded him for meeting the interim accord, he would be looking at a midterm "F," for failing. If, however, he were being graded on outfoxing Professor Barack Obama of the University of Chicago at midterm, Rouhani would earn an "A."

According to the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran must be complying because he expects the talks to include drafting of the July agreement when they resume on May 13. He made that statement before the April talks even began, which implies back channels between American and Iranian negotiators to cook a deal for formalization in Vienna, which the leader of the U.S. delegation acknowledged.

Having represented the secretary of defense on a State Department-led delegation in 1985 arms talks that also met at the Hofburg in Vienna, I am concerned. As parties place brackets around "not agreed upon texts," the U.S. delegation may be too forthcoming in the bracket removal process. In our talks with the Russians in Vienna, contrary to the tougher approach of Defense, State delegates were too eager for proposal-counterproposal bargaining, while the Russians pocketed our concessions. I fear the same may be recurring at the Hofburg, but this time Iranians are picking our pockets.

Tehran is also bargaining by pushing the envelope of noncompliance. It is on a trajectory of cheating on its obligations in the Jan. 20 Joint Plan of Action. United Against Nuclear Iran states that, "Iran's oil exports have increased 117% since October. It is now statistically impossible for the [Obama] administration's assurances to be correct, unless oil sales go to effectively zero."

There are reports that Iran's oil exports stayed above levels allowed under sanctions for a fifth month. Tehran's exports should average 1 million bpd for six months to July 20. Shipments to Asia, however, have exceeded that threshold since November. To provide a happy face to naysayers, Team Obama assumes exports will fall in the next three months so the average will meet the 1 million bpd level of the interim agreement. But as economies pick up, so oil demands will increase.

This overstepping of the terms of the interim accord understandably prompted Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to pen a letter to President Obama recommending "re-instating ... and sanctioning any violations" of crude oil sanctions, if Iran's oil exports stayed above levels allowed under sanctions. I concur.

It has also been reported that the oil-for-goods deal heating up between Moscow and Tehran would be worth up to $20 billion. What if Russian S-300 missiles that could defend Iran's nuclear sites from Israeli or American air strikes were in the mix? If so, the deal might be a game changer. Tehran would have both smashed the sanctions and received a deterrent that raised the cost of attacks by Jerusalem or Washington, in the event of Iranian moves toward breaking out -- dashing for the bomb before inspectors can detect it. The current western assessment for Iranian breakout time is two months.

Why the concern with likelihood of Iranian noncompliance at midterm? If Tehran cheats and we retreat, there may be more challenges across the globe against American interests and allies. Because the Obama administration lacks an overall strategy that measures actions in one arena by effects elsewhere, it tends to act tactically. Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq had unintended effects in Syria. Precipitate pullout from Afghanistan will reverberate in Pakistan and India. As Russia threatens more forays into bordering countries, China makes threats against Japan, and North Korea warns South Korea, now is not the time to show a weak hand to Tehran.

A feckless policy toward Iran in the nuclear talks is also manifest in abandonment of pro-American Iranian dissidents in Iraq, the Mojahedin. Although there was a Bush administration pledge to protect these dissidents if they disarmed during the takedown of Saddam, Obama left them exposed to proxies of Iran operating freely in Iraq.

And while Bush said to the Iranian people, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," Obama declines to reach out to them with such inspirational rhetoric. Given the failing grade at midterm, now is the time to take a tough stand against Tehran in nuclear talks and to reach out to the Iranian people.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images