Summits and Valleys

For nearly 25 years, US presidents have struggled to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. A special report retraces the successes and breakdowns.

As he sat at the evening banquet, held outside in the soft air of Washington's spring, President Jimmy Carter was thrilled to see bitter enemies welcome each other as friends. Earlier that day – March 26, 1979 – President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel had signed the Camp David accords, formally ending the state of war that had existed between their countries for 31 years. Now, they were mingling on the White House lawn, glasses and plates in hand, swapping tales of old wars.

At one point, Shaul, son of Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, approached the head table to pay his respects. While serving with Israeli forces years earlier, Shaul had been severely wounded by Egyptian fire. But on this night, the leader of Egypt's armies, Mr. Sadat himself, rose and embraced him.

Days later, Mr. Begin made what he judged a triumphal visit to Cairo. He phoned Mr. Carter and, almost shouting with glee, described the warmth of his welcome. Then Sadat called, also buoyant. Surely now the Arabs and Israelis could lift from America's shoulders the "burden" of serving as an intermediary in negotiations, he said. "If you do, my fervent prayers will have been answered," said Carter.

That heady moment may represent the high point of American peacemaking in the Middle East.

Just ask President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. They might say that today the "burden" Sadat referred to is as heavy as ever.

Virtually every US chief executive since Carter has entered office determined to avoid mediation in one of the most explosive areas of the world. Virtually all ended their terms hip-deep in the search for solutions to the conflict between Israel on the one side and Palestinians and Arab states on the other.

Why is this so? The combatants themselves push it, for one thing. The United States has historic ties to both Israel and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. The Israelis tend to distrust the European Union, Russia, and most other possible mediators. The Palestinians believe that only the US has the power to get Israel to do something it doesn't really want to do.

Also at stake are US national interests in the region. A conflagration in the Mideast would threaten the industrial world's access to Gulf oil. It could threaten the security of Israel, a democratic state with strong cultural and political ties to America. During the cold war, US officials worked hard to limit Soviet influence with the Arabs. Truth be told, they probably want to muscle out other big-power rivals, even benign ones, today.

But there may be an "X" factor at work as well. A cold calculation of geopolitics does not explain Jimmy Carter poring endlessly over maps of the Sinai, personally drawing possible lines of Israeli-Egyptian disengagement. It does not explain why President George Herbert Walker Bush's secretary of State, James A. Baker, would sit through a 9-1/2 hour meeting with Syria's Hafez al-Assad (Mr. Baker's aides invented "important" phone calls so they could use the lavatory).

Nor do policy concerns entirely explain President Clinton devoting more time to face-to-face Mideast peace negotiations than any US leader, ever, even as the prospect of success receded in the distance.

In the end, US presidents and their closest aides can become personally immersed in the Mideast peace process. It is big. It is interesting. Their views matter. Presidents drive US policy, serving as the swing vote between a reliably pro-Israeli Congress and a State Department bureaucracy more in tune with Arab views.

George W. Bush hasn't yet gone as far down this road as did Bill Clinton – or even Bush's father. But having inserted his administration into the search for an end to the current round of violence ... well, has there been a recent White House that became less involved with the search for Mideast peace, over time?

"The bottom line is that for 35 years, the US and its leaders have played an essential, critical, vital role in the region. That's happening with [Bush] and Colin Powell today," says Kenneth Stein, Carter's chief Middle East adviser.

America's principles

Last November, the secretary of State delivered what aides billed as an important address at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. In its shape and delivery, the speech was vintage Colin Powell. It began with a politician-smooth nod to local sensibilities. (He thanked the mayor for the gift of an oversized Louisville Slugger bat.) It touched on the antiterrorist news of the moment, as an easy transition into substance. Then came the entree: a concise six-part summary of the complicated position the US has held on the Arab-Israeli conflict since the end of the 1967 Six-Day War.

No. 1 is a vision of peace – as Powell put it, "a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders." This might sound obvious, even banal. But as journalist Thomas Friedman noted in his book "Beirut to Jerusalem," one of the chief things the US can offer the war-battered states of the region is unrelenting optimism that their conflict can be solved.

No. 2 is a vision of peace through talking, not shooting. "Palestinians must accept that they can only achieve their goals through negotiation," said Powell. Specialists say that from the beginning, US Mideast diplomacy has had a bias toward procedure in the quest for solutions. Thus US officials are always saying things like, "If we can only get to Tenet, then transition into Mitchell...." (Translation: Implementation of the security measures envisioned in an agreement drawn up by CIA Director George Tenet may make it possible to proceed to the political steps in ex-Sen. George Mitchell's peace accords.)

No. 3 is that Israel will have to give something up to get something back. That means eventual withdrawal from most of the land it captured in the 1967 war, in return for peace and recognition from its neighbors. As Powell noted, this core trade-off is codified in United Nations resolutions. "Israel must be willing to end its occupation, consistent with the principles embodied in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and accept a viable Palestinian state," Powell said.

No. 4 is that Israeli settlements in its occupied territories are thus unhelpful. They undermine Palestinian trust and hope. Powell – as generations of US officials before him – said settlement activity "must stop."

No. 5 is that the Palestinians will have to give up something, too. Palestinian refugees are unlikely to obtain an unfettered "right of return" to land their forefathers fled in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Any solution of the refugee problem must be "realistic," said Powell. Israel must not be forced to accept a tide of returnees that could alter the nation's social and political character.

Finally, No. 6 is that some things are so hard that the US won't presuppose a solution. "The status of Jerusalem is a challenge which the two parties can only resolve together," said Powell. The US has considered East Jerusalem, taken by Israel in 1967, as occupied territory. But it has also held that the historic city should not be physically divided again.

These are the general principles that every US president and administration since Lyndon Johnson's time have for the most part upheld. There are exceptions. Prior to the Reagan administration, the US said that Israeli settlements were in fact illegal under international law. President Ronald Reagan, among the most pro-Israeli of US leaders, redefined them as simply unhelpful. It took until George W. Bush for presidents to speak clearly about a Palestinian "state." Prior to that, the US goal was a Palestinian something-or-other, perhaps associated with Jordan, or perhaps not.

But these are strategic positions, not tactical policy, which is determined by day-to-day administration decisions. That is where the beliefs and characters of the president, the secretary of State, and other top officials come into play.

Policy involves judgment about what will work, as University of Virginia professor of international affairs William Quandt notes in his comprehensive study of the US-Arab-Israeli diplomatic triangle, "Peace Process." How can a particular country be influenced? What's our leverage? When should we move? When should we not?

Positions are predictable. Policies, particularly in regard to the crisis-prone Middle East, are not.

"They are the realm where leadership makes all the difference," writes Mr. Quandt.

The seminal event

When Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin had their first brief conversation at the beginning of the Camp David talks on Sept. 5, 1978, the mood was, if not tense, overly formal. Begin did not respond to the grandeur of the Catoctin Mountains setting with a sweeping statement of his overall goals. Instead, he questioned Carter minutely about the procedure they, and Anwar Sadat, would follow. What would the schedule be? How would a record of meetings be kept? How many aides would be allowed in what venue?

Carter had hoped that the isolation and the obvious stakes would have loosened the Israeli leader up a bit, but he had to admit that he was sympathetic. "He and I were both very methodical about such matters, and I would have wanted answers to the same questions," he wrote in his presidential memoirs, "Keeping Faith."

Carter was trained as an engineer, and had served in the Navy. He approached Middle East peacemaking with the rigor he would have brought to plugging a turbine power-system leak.

He prepared for the talks by plowing through a forest of paper, including extensive CIA-prepared psychological reports on Begin and Sadat. And during the historic 13 days of Camp David, and its aftermath, the US president transformed himself into a one-man bureaucracy. He kept extensive personal notes, shuttled between the Israeli and Egyptian camps with working texts, and personally drafted side letters, memorandums for the record, and items of diplomatic detritus.

"Jimmy Carter was his own secretary of State," says Dr. Stein, who is also director of the Middle East Research Program at Emory College in Atlanta.

This style of engagement did not always work in domestic politics. But at Camp David, it did. Sadat was eager for an agreement, self-conscious of his role as a historic figure, and amenable to US suggestions. Carter wondered later if Sadat had trusted him too much. But Begin was stubborn, legalistic, and fixed on details. It took Carter's diplomatic engineering work to pin down Israeli positions on such items as the fate of Israeli airfields in the Sinai, and then work toward agreement.

Carter also thought that if only Begin and Sadat would sit down and talk, they would eventually see the goodwill in the other, and reason as friends. He was spectacularly wrong about this. He was surprised by the depth of cultural hatred between the two camps. Sadat's and Begin's styles were so personally incompatible that their host found it best to keep them apart after only one meeting.

Still, in the end, the trio came down from the mountaintop with two frameworks of agreement. One was straightforward land-for-peace, trading Israeli withdrawal from Sinai for full recognition from Egypt. The other dealt with the Palestinian question, calling for a five-year transition period to begin after the election of a self-governing authority, with final-status talks to be held before the transition time was up.

Carter was ecstatic. He wrote in his diary that his strongest emotional reaction to his peacemaking's apparent success was when he read that striking Israeli teachers, having heard about the Camp David accords, voted unanimously to go back to work.

But he had underestimated the work to come. Months of slogging lay ahead to get the parties to agree on what they had agreed to. Before the final success of the March 1979 signing ceremony, Carter became so incensed at what he judged Begin's intransigence that he sent the Israeli prime minister a harsh, hand-written rebuke. Ironically, the next day Begin and Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The signing ceremony itself was arguably the high point of Carter's presidency. Only months later, it became clear that the promise of that March day would not be completely fulfilled.

Palestinians and harder-line Arab states were unimpressed by the "autonomy" promised to the occupied territories. They judged it a way for Israel to keep control of the West Bank and Gaza, allowing the resident Palestinians power only to pick up garbage and string streetlights. They rejected it.

Israel withdrew punctually from the Sinai. But it did not stop the building of settlements on occupied land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Carter had wanted a comprehensive settlement of the region's problems. But the link between the Palestinian and Egyptian halves of the Camp David accords proved too weak. In the end, Carter could not ask for more from the Israelis than Sadat did. And Sadat was eager to get the Sinai back.

The lesson here? The United States can set the negotiating table, but it can't force the parties to eat the meal. "American leadership was certainly a necessary condition for the success of [Camp David], but it was not sufficient," writes the University of Virginia's Quandt. "The parties to the conflict had to be ready for agreement."

Carter himself realized quickly that his presidential Mideast peacemaking record would be a mixed one. The success of Camp David will "depend on the wisdom and dedication of the leaders of the future," he wrote in 1982.

Reluctant referees

As president, George Herbert Walker Bush was determined not to repeat what he judged to be Carter's mistake of over-involvement in the Middle East. Nor did he want to be Mr. Reagan, at least on this issue. The Reagan administration had viewed Israel mostly as a strategic asset in the cold war, and for this and other reasons, had allowed itself to be drawn into a disastrous peacekeeping role in Lebanon. On Oct. 23, 1983, 241 US marines had been killed by a truck bomb at their barracks on the outskirts of Beirut.

Bush's secretary of State, James A. Baker, felt the same way. A Houston lawyer and associate of Bush from his oil days, Baker had earned the nickname "Velvet Hammer" for his smooth steeliness during service as Reagan's chief of staff.

"From Day 1, the last thing I wanted to do was touch the Middle East peace process," wrote Baker in his 1995 memoir, "The Politics of Diplomacy."

The Bush team's initial dealings with the region only reinforced its belief that comprehensive peace plans were to be avoided. Bush himself thought that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had deliberately misled him during a meeting, implying falsely that settlement activity would be stopped. A tentative attempt at developing a US–Palestine Liberation Organization dialogue was undone in the spring of 1990, in part because the Israeli Navy intercepted two boatloads of heavily armed Palestinians heading for Tel Aviv.

By then the pragmatic, deal-oriented Baker was frustrated no end. While reviewing a diplomatic cable that would tell US officials to halt their nascent PLO talks, he finally lost patience. To the amazement of the man who had brought him the message – a member of the Policy Planning staff named Aaron Miller – Baker simply flung it into the air.

"I want you to know, Aaron, if I had another life, I'd want to be a Middle East specialist just like you, because it would mean guaranteed permanent employment," said Baker.

Then events, in the form of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and his subsequent expulsion via the US-led Gulf War, intervened.

Even as US armor chased the Republican Guard back into Iraq, the Bush administration's top officials were beginning to think that the moment might be ripe for another big attempt at Mideast peace, whatever their natural inclinations.

Thus was born the October 1991 Madrid conference – the most concerted US diplomacy on the Israeli-Arab question since 1979.

But Madrid was not leader-to-leader, high-stakes wrangling. It was, in essence, a diplomatic convention – complete with agendas, speeches, and a co-host in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Where Carter at Camp David sought to complete a mission, Baker at Madrid sought to begin one. The meeting kicked off a set of bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, and, for the first time, Palestinians representing themselves. Multilateral meetings on such things as water rights and the environment were thrown in for good measure.

At Madrid – and in follow-up meetings in Washington – Arabs kept pushing the Bush administration to produce peace plans of its own. But that was not the point. Bush and Baker were determined to play the parts of "conveners," not mediators, according to Quandt.

Even if they wanted to change, they didn't have time. Bush's declining political fortunes meant he did not have enough domestic support to provide strong leadership on the issue.

But the Madrid "convention" structure proved durable. It got a number of negotiating tracks going, with some, such as that involving Israel and Syria, producing substantial progress.

"Madrid was a very successful contribution to Mideast peace," says Abraham Sofaer, who mediated a number of Arab-Israeli disputes while serving as legal adviser to the State Department from 1985 to 1990.

According to Mr. Sofaer, the relationships cultivated as a result of this Bush process led indirectly to the 1993 Oslo agreement, which was reached by Israeli and Palestinian representatives meeting in secret under Norwegian auspices.

Closer to peace – and unrest

Clinton beamed like a jolly uncle blessing a wedding when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, 1993.

The US president had ample reason to look pleased. It was a magnificent day, sunny with portents of peace. Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin had just signed the Oslo pact, which promised final reconciliation between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Just by standing there, Clinton was sharing in their achievement. And the beauty of it was, he'd had very little to do with it!

Official, US-sponsored Middle East talks had continued in the first year of the Clinton administration, of course. For one thing, Secretary of State Warren Christopher thought an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty possible, and was already acting as a go-between.

(Over four years, Mr. Christopher would fly to Syria 20 times, yet come up empty-handed. He should have listened to Baker. Baker once complained to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that negotiating with Syria's President Assad always made him feel like he needed a massage. The meetings were frustrating and long, and the chairs were placed at a neck-bending 90-degree angle. Mr. Mubarak roared with laughter, and said he'd often urged Assad to move those very chairs face to face.)

But Oslo was the result of back-channel diplomacy, not US mediation. The US may have created the atmosphere in which it was possible, but that was not the doing of Clinton himself.

Still, the moment was clearly historic. Under Oslo's terms, Israel and the PLO recognized each other's legitimacy. They were to enter a transitional period, during which a permanent peace was to be hammered out while Israel gradually transferred land in the West Bank and Gaza to a new quasi-state, the self-governing Palestinian Authority.

Was peace finally at hand?

Over the next few years, it seemed possible. Israel and the PLO managed to work out a number of agreements, including an "Oslo II" accord that divided the West Bank and Gaza into three zones and laid out who would control what land, and when.

But as peace came closer, rejectionists became more active. In an atmosphere of rising terror-bomb-and-response violence, Rabin attended a peace rally in Tel Aviv in late October 1995. A right-wing Israeli extremist assassinated him as he left.

Could Clinton have achieved a final peace before Rabin was killed? If he had lived, the Clinton strategy of letting the parties themselves set the pace might have made sense. But he didn't.

"Time is of the essence in the Middle East, and the United States did little to impart its own sense of urgency," writes Quandt.

This didn't change during the middle years of Clinton's presidency. At one point in 1996, during a particularly bad burst of regional violence, he invited Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lunch at the White House. Clinton sat them down together, and gave a few opening remarks. Then, oddly, he left, behaving as if Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu were quarreling spouses who just needed time for a heart-to-heart to set things right.

Then everything shifted, for Clinton at least. With the end of his time in office drawing near, battered by the Monica Lewinsky matter and bitter domestic opponents, watching the promise of Oslo unravel, he threw himself into peacemaking with all the let's-pull-an-all-nighter energy he could muster.

He began Carter-style summit diplomacy in October 1998. Isolated at the Wye Conference Center on Maryland's eastern shore, Arafat and Netanyahu produced some progress on further security guarantees and withdrawals.

But more needed to be done. And after Rabin protégé Ehud Barak replaced Netanyahu as Israeli prime minster, Clinton invoked the spirit of Carter, convening Camp David II on July 11, 2000.

Exactly what happened at Camp David II remains a matter of dispute.

In one view, Mr. Barak proffered Arafat the best deal he is ever likely to get, including clear statehood, a claim to upwards of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, and return of substantial numbers of refugees to Israel proper under a family reunification plan. Arafat turned it down, proving that he wants violence, not a deal at all.

In another view, Arafat was isolated at Camp David in the company of two men who wanted to reach a deal as quickly as possible – any deal. They presented vague terms that were not as good as they sounded, and tried to pressure Arafat into accepting them despite his repeated protests that they weren't good enough.

Whatever happened, it was a failure. While talks continued for some months in the Middle East, violence was rising, in a spiral that eventually consumed the remaining goodwill on both sides.

Clearly, Clinton was not Carter. He plunged into Middle East diplomacy at the end of his term, rather than at the beginning, when presidents have more leverage. Instead of Carteresque meticulously written diplomacy, there were free-floating discussions. "We allowed the process gradually to become 'presidentialized,' " bemoaned Robert Malley, Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, in a speech last year to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine in Washington.

But that was just one of many US mistakes, said Mr. Malley. Among the others: "We neglected what was happening on the ground."

Palestinian resentment was rising, unappeased by Israeli pullbacks from small slips of land. Israeli resentment was rising, as their relative security was increasingly threatened by terrorist bombs.

In long-standing ethnic conflicts such as those that bedevil the Middle East, there is a difference between dealmaking and peace-making, says Joseph Montville, a former chief of the State Department Near East Division.

What seems to be missing today is a sense on the part of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians that they have a stake in the ongoing diplomatic dialogue. "Peacemaking needs to be done with populations as well as various leaders of the elites," says Mr. Montville, now director of a preventive-diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Eight lessons

From this historical topography of US peacemaking in the Middle East, there are a number of general conclusions an interested member of the Bush administration might draw as this White House feels its way through the current crisis:

No. 1: US mediation in this volatile area of the world is crucial. Egypt and Israel would never have struck a deal in 1979 without Carter's persistence. Though he once bemoaned his role as a "postman" in the talks, he provided a crucial link between Sadat, who was more interested in concluding a deal than his aides, and Begin's top aides, who were more interested in concluding a deal than their boss.

No. 2: The big breakthroughs don't always come from White House pressure. Sadat's dramatic personal trip to Jerusalem set the stage for Camp David in the first place. US mediation may have made the Oslo accords possible, but they were struck in secret, in Scandinavia. Secretary of State Christopher first heard of them while on vacation in California.

No. 3: Persistence, persistence. One side or the other in Mideast negotiations is always threatening to pack its bags and leave in the morning. Sometimes they actually pack their bags. Sometimes they actually leave. Sofaer, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., brokered the swap of a small parcel of land between Israel and Egypt on the heels of the Camp David accord. "It took me five years to do a seven-acre deal," he says.

No. 4: They really don't like each other. Carter found that Sadat and Begin so mistrusted each other that direct talks were counterproductive. At Camp David II, Clinton thought that direct contact between Barak and Arafat would create positive momentum. It didn't. Appeals to common fellowship are very American, but in the Middle East, they don't work. Negotiators have to focus on substance, not personality.

No. 5: The cycles of politics matter. Both Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush made progress in Middle East mediation at the height of their domestic popularity. In Carter's case, his leverage waned as his poll ratings fell. The Israeli political cycle is perhaps even more crucial – Clinton, for instance, launched his most intensive initiatives after the defeat of the hard-line Netanyahu. Virtually every post-Carter president has had two radically different Israeli prime ministers to deal with.

No. 6: If something doesn't work, try something else. Shuttle diplomacy stalled? Let's have a regional summit! Hmm ... maybe a White House visit would be better. The fact that US Mideast diplomacy is centered in the Oval Office, combined with its perennial focus on process, has given it an "almost experimental quality," writes Quandt, who is himself perhaps the nation's preeminent authority on the peace process.

No. 7: It's an art, not a science. No one approach works best – the incrementalism of Baker and the Madrid conference produced progress, as did Carter's comprehensive Camp David big bang. The trick is in identifying what mix of go-slow and go-fast is best for a particular moment.

No. 8: there is no reverse gear on US involvement. The Bush administration must be debating what approach to take next, following Secretary of State Powell's return from the region without a hoped-for cease-fire. Whatever happens – whether it be a pause in US action or more intensive engagement – it probably won't be a complete diplomatic withdrawal. Consider Powell's own prophetic words, from his Louisville speech: "The Middle East has always needed active American engagement for there to be progress, and we will provide it, just as we have for over half a century."

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