I worked as a US negotiator on the Arab-Israeli conflict for almost 20 years, and nobody ever lost money betting against peace. When mediators do succeed, it's largely because the locals are ready for a deal – and a need a third party.
Watching US Secretary of State John Kerry over the past year – and especially the past month – it strikes me that the Obama administration has lost sight of that basic principle: America has to get over its obsession with happy endings or definitive solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Because right now there are not any – either to the impasse in Gaza or to the broader challenge.
I understand the US determination to do it all – the death toll is rising, a crisis is escalating – but Kerry is out of sync, both in trying (and failing) for ceasefire after ceasefire and in trying (and flailing) to make peace between Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. "It's crazy just to be sitting around," he said on a hot mic Sunday. But is it?
Kerry didn't deserve the ad hominem attacks from the Israeli press and politicians as he returned from the region this week, but he did leave himself open to them. Now, as ceasefire confusion reigns with Kerry on the sidelines back in Washington, he at least seems to have gotten the message – that the US needs to take Israel's goal of disarming Hamas seriously, however improbable it may seem.
Here's what went wrong on Kerry's trip to the Middle East, and how the Americans might still help achieve de-escalation.
Assumption No 1: A series of short-term ceasefires is a cure-all.
This is a kinetic conflict between two sides looking for an advantage – not a tie, and not even a true pause to allow momentum. Kerry's assumption that he could somehow get both sides to calm down was his biggest mistake. Israel and Hamas will only do that when the value of standing down outweighs the costs of continuing the battle. We're not there yet.
Assumption No 2: A conflict is ready for resolution when America says it is.
Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. He was wrong – it's showing up at the right time. If I learned anything at the US State Department, it was about rhythm: no mediator can really deliver unless someone says they're done, and Netanyahu just said "a long operation" is in store. Kerry's hot-mic comments reflected an eagerness to travel and make his own deal, not anyone else's. Indeed, he made the same mistake in his broader peace efforts, which also failed. When America is in a greater hurry to do a deal than the actual parties involved, Houston, we have a problem.
Assumption No 3: America is an honest broker.
On his trip, Kerry appeared to be giving Hamas and Israel equal billing. Sure, he used Egypt's anti-Hamas proposal (which the Israelis accepted) as the basis for a humanitarian ceasefire. But such a proposal no longer reflects the political realities in Israel. Netanyahu's rivals want more – a real weakening of Hamas, even de-militarization – and Kerry seemed to forget that the United States is not really an honest broker. It's much closer to Israel on security issues – always has been, always will be.
But America can be an effective broker. It requires ceding much to Israel, particularly on security, and it certainly doesn't mean creating the impression that the US is prepared to treat Hamas's requirements as somehow equal. The key next step is for the US to see its role as small, not big – transactional, not transformational.
Barring some element that fundamentally changes the equation – an Israeli decision to re-occupy Gaza, the eruption of a third intifada on the West Bank – at some point both Israel and Hamas will be ready for mediators to help produce some negotiated ceasefire. And while Egypt will be key, America's role will also be essential, particularly if the Israelis really are serious about opening up Gaza economically in exchange for closing the tunnels and staunching the flow of weapons to Hamas.
It's too early to sketch out precise terms for how this ends. But if John Kerry wants to have any chance of stabilizing Gaza – let alone pursuing a broader peace process in the next two years – he needs to remind himself that Netanyahu is tough, frustrating and requires patience. And that Gaza is the poster child for doing the best you can.