Does American mediation in the Arab-Israeli dispute work?

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department’s 2015 budget turned into a bipartisan pile-on for Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach to the Middle East, John McCain characterized Kerry’s approach as “talking very strongly and carrying a small stick.”  Other critics included Robert Menendez and Bob Corker, as well as Jim Risch.   Kerry told the panel, “Sure, we may fail. You want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort.”  Kerry’s right.

Resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute has been seen by many American Presidents as “one for the history books,” the key to a Nobel Peace Prize, and pursued during a second term when their domestic influence has already begun to wane. Even with their political capital spent at home Presidents believe they still wield tremendous influence abroad.

American mediation seems to have as much luck as the flip of a coin.  Four of the eight efforts sponsored by the U.S. were successes: Sinai I and II; the Syria-Israel Disengagement Agreement; and the Israel-Egypt treaty of 1979. The four failures were the Rogers Plan, the Palestinian Autonomy Plan, the attempts to reach an agreement with Syria during the 1990s, and Camp David II.  (I include the Autonomy Plan because it was the outgrowth of the Camp David Accords.)  While blame games for the absence of peace still persist, American-led efforts have had greater success than leaving the sides to their own devices.  There have been twenty bids to reach peace between Israel and it’s enemies from the birth of the Jewish state until 2001.  Of the twelve attempts that did not involve American participation, only one succeeded (the peace process between Jordan and Israel).

Naysayers point out that the American successes were the direct result of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which rendered the rivalry ripe for resolution. However, this does not explain why peace wasn’t reached after 1948 and 1967. Ben-Gurion’s government attempted to reach an agreement with King Abdullah I of Jordan: one involved a land-for-peace swap that would’ve given Amman a corridor to the Mediterranean; another was for a five-year non-aggression pact.  The talks fell through for several reasons because of disagreements over the size of the corridor, perceived Israeli belligerence and questions over the stability of the Hashemites.  However, Moshe Sharett, the first Israeli Foreign Minister called in vain for the U.S. to get involved.  Other attempts made without U.S. involvement failed, including the overtures made by the short-lived Syrian dictatorship of Husni al-Zaim. After the Six Day War, the Eshkol government offered a land-for-peace transaction to Egypt and Jordan (but not Syria) after the Six Day War, only to be refused with the “three no’s” of the Khartoum Resolutions: no peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no negotiations with Israel.

Most International Relations experts suggest that the best mediators are neutral mediators who can reconcile two sides’ conflicting goals. However, international politics does not resemble a pre-trial motion.  A biased mediator directly allied with one of the parties to a dispute is likely to have more luck than an unbiased arbiter in bringing an intractable conflict to a close.  A neutral mediator’s interest is in reaching an agreement at all costs; but one of the parties to a dispute is more likely to believe a bargain is in their best interest if it is offered to them by an ally.

The U.S. has to grapple with the hardest cases: if the cases were easy they wouldn’t require mediation.  The longer territorial disputes last, the harder it is to resolve them.  Although it is beginning to look like John Kerry’s attempt to reach an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians will collapse, his domestic critics would be wrong to equate this with either naïveté or incompetence.  Instead, it is a case of international politics as usual.   Kerry’s right and his Congressional critics are wrong: American participation in the peace process raises the likelihood a deal will be struck.