In the Middle East today, diplomatic success and failure are unfolding side by side, often with some of the same players. High-profile attempts are being made to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, to stop the massacre of innocents in Syria, and to bring Iran in from the cold. Why is the latter initiative succeeding while the former are failing miserably, condemning Israelis and Palestinians to what Secretary of State John Kerry has described as an "unsustainable status quo" and consigning Syrians and increasingly their Arab neighbors to continued bloodshed and the disintegration of state institutions?
The principal ingredients that distinguish the so-far successful Iran initiative are conspicuous in their absence from Israel/Palestine and, Geneva notwithstanding, Syria. They include:
Strong, committed, and authorized leadership. There is no doubt that the rapprochement between Tehran and Washington is proceeding as a consequence of a decision by both leaderships—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, and Barack Obama. The representative authority of these leaders is self-evident, as is their ability to act in an independent fashion. No one here is freelancing, acting on his own behalf, or operating with little confirmation of his standing in the political pecking order. Is it conceivable to describe the Syrian opposition haunting the corridors along Lake Geneva in this fashion?
On the Palestine front, neither PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be within hailing distance of each other were it not for Kerry. But the efforts of the secretary of state continue to suffer because Obama has yet to make absolutely clear that he has Kerry’s back and that he is prepared to invest whatever it takes to conclude a peace agreement.
The Iranians and Americans respect one another. The foolish by U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman that “deception is part of the DNA of the Iranian leadership” was notable because it contradicted the far more positive tenor of the initiative. Indeed, neither Obama nor Khamenei see the other as a “chick without feathers,” as Ariel Sharon once insultingly described Abbas. Abbas’s popular mandate as president expired long ago, and he is embroiled in a debilitating battle with Hamas. Israeli officials take every opportunity—most recently —to declare that were it not for the presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank, Abbas would soon be ousted by Hamas.
The venture endorsed by Obama and Khamenei, in contrast, reflects the unambiguous, committed power of each respective system to engage—as opponents to be sure—but also as partners in a shared enterprise.
A common, shared agenda with benefits to both. Leadership of the kind on display in Tehran and Washington but sorely lacking in Syria and its neighbors to the south is a prerequisite for success, but leadership without a shared understanding of the negotiating agenda also guarantees failure.
In regard to Iran, as a consequence of successful dialogue between the parties, a consensus on a negotiating agenda has emerged between Iran and the United States, supported by the P5+1, whose fulfillment has tangible economic and security benefits for both.
While Israel and the PLO agree that negotiations should result in a Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel, this umbrella is not supported by any sense of joint partnership in a shared outcome or agreement on how best to proceed.
Contrast the understanding of common interests supporting the U.S.-Iran process with the inability of Israeli and Palestinian delegations to agree on anything but a mutually shared but zero sum desire not to be blamed by the United States and Europe for Kerry’s failure. The United States itself has not distinguished itself in this regard, most recently promoting the vague concept of a framework agreement that neither party understands or supports except insofar as not to antagonize Washington.
The drama now underway in Geneva offers continuing proof that the Geneva I understandings are subject to competing and antagonistic interpretations that reflect the opposing goals of the government and those opposition factions (a minority) prepared to attempt their implementation. The Geneva I protocol does not (yet) represent a package—not just a consensus view of an outcome, whose achievement would itself be no less than a miracle, but a consensus that can be fortified by operational agreements on ceasefires and humanitarian assistance as well as on the central questions of political succession and the preservation of national institutions.
An agreed-upon structure for negotiations. The P5+1 offers the parties an agreed-upon, flexible structure through which negotiations can be conducted. The parties are building upon success, defining, agreeing, and implementing a menu of incremental goals.
Such a basic prerequisite for progress is absent on the Palestine-Israel front, which in recent years has bounced among a variety of on-again, off-again negotiating structures, all of which have come up short, including proximity talks, occasional summits, and, in the last year, meetings hosted by the United States, both bilateral and unilateral, including a unilateral U.S. security inquiry in December 2013—the results of which were rejected by both sides.
Early in 2014, U.S. officials appear to have lost some of their confidence. The bar for success is lower than it was two months ago. The focus now is to keep the parties at the table beyond April and to prolong Abbas’s boycott of the United Nations. The Geneva effort is characterized by similarly modest expectations, centered on arranging confidence-building measures meant to establish and expand common ground.
An ability to fulfill obligations incurred through negotiations. The Obama administration has distinguished its commitment to its engagement with Tehran by mounting a forceful defense of its policy in the face of congressional efforts to limit or undermine the president’s negotiating authority. In doing so, Obama has mobilized support in Congress to reaffirm his policy. In some respects the backing offered is unprecedented. Witness the extraordinary remarks by Senator Dianne Feinstein in opposition to a new Iran sanctions bill (S1881) sponsored by 59 senators. Feinstein that the proposed legislation would lead Tehran to conclude that “we are interested in regime change.”
“In my view, it is a march toward war,” the senator said, echoing the White House argument. Feinstein was particularly critical of the bill’s provision that states, “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide…diplomatic, military, and economic support.”
“While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war,” she said. “By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.”
Feinstein publicly confronted colleagues in the Senate and what has always been considered part of her natural constituency to defend the prerogative of the president. The antics of the policy’s opponents serve the president well. Obama has the angels on his side when he opposes Congress’s willingness to subcontract to an Israeli government hostile to its Iran policy the power to take the United States to war. By facing down the opponents of his policies, Obama reaffirms the interest of the United States in their success and demonstrates the kind of commitment that continues to be absent in Geneva and Palestine.