Hilary Clinton is a person with great determination, resilience and, never to be underestimated, a capacity for steep learning curves. She will need all of these and more as she takes on the most intractable problem in international politics these past thirty years--trapping the seemingly mythical beast known as Mideast Peace.
An important caveat is needed here. Even if the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority come to an agreement, that is only the first step of constructing a comprehensive Mideast peace.
If the president has decided to leave the negotiations, the making of deals which are both acceptable to parties long estranged by the forces of blood and ambition and enforcible over time to others in his administration and will limit his participation both on and off camera to ceremonial occasions, Ms Clinton has a slight chance of succeeding where so many of her predecessors have failed, some miserably. Admittedly the "if" is a very big "if."
Ms Clinton has established a mixed record as Secretary of State. Her stewardship at Foggy Bottom is seen with a liberal degree of cynical hope in Israel. The cynicism results from her role in executing the Obama dictated program of coercion. The hope springs from the realization that Ms Clinton has invested a great deal in the "peace process" and doesn't want it to go bust as if it were one more Whitewater but writ much larger.
Having faithfully complied with Mr Obama's blundering of reaching out to the unreachable while stomping on a government long noted for stomping back, it is to be hoped (and reasonably expected) that the Secretary of State will be allowed to play a free hand in her personal diplomacy over the next days, and, perhaps, weeks or even months as the direct bilateral talks lurch along. The Nice Young Man From Chicago should realize by now that as a statesman he is a fine tuba player.
The Israeli government knows that Ms Clinton had no realistic alternative to carrying the president's water in the past months. The prime movers in Jerusalem, most importantly PM Netanyhu, will cut her an appropriate amount of slack, will see her as offering genuine good offices as a facilitator and mediator. If not undercut by the Arabists in her own department, the role of woman-in-the-middle suits her well given her political and diplomatic skills.
As Secretary of State she has performed well, better than might have been expected twenty months ago. While she has been on the wrong side of some issues--Honduras, the Falkland Islands dispute, the decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Cabal (to say nothing of the Universal Periodic Review)--other policy actions, most importantly the calling of China out despite Beijing's huffing and puffing over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, have been impressive.
The context in which she will be operating while being woman-in-the-middle has several favorable features. Iran looms largest in the fears of Israel with the security threats posed by a Palestinian state on the West Bank trailing as a distant second. Indeed the potential Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons has so sobered the Arab states to the degree that they can throw significant weight behind a treaty between the PA and Israel which does not meet the ambitious level of the Arab League proposal (aka the Abdullah Plan.)
The real game changer in the Mideast over the past two years has been Iran. More specifically, it has been the combination of Iran's quest for the "Mahdi Bomb" coupled with the all too obvious Iranian backing of regime change throughout the region.
Ms Clinton will be able to take advantage of the fears generated by Tehran's way too lofty ambitions. She will also be able to leverage the increasingly anti-Israel sentiments and behaviors of Europe into a useful tool to assure a degree of realism in the government of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, most particularly the Fatah dominated government of Mahmoud Abbas, needs the support and assistance of the West led by the US if it is going to survive let alone prosper. A viable state on the West Bank needs, no, requires, investment by and trade with the West as well as direct assistance. Abbas understands this and his understanding is no doubt shared by the non-zany senior leadership of the PA. This gives Ms Clinton a potent way of gaining genuine PA cooperation.
The context also includes several important and very negative features. Some are sufficient kill-the-peace conversations before the month is over.
Topping the list is the continuation of the moratorium on "settlement" construction. The ten month halt will end on 26 September. This means the balloon can go up on the 27th.
The PA has made the settlement freeze the Absolute Line In The Sand. When Abbas and his cohorts say "no" on this matter they mean "NO." No expansions. No "natural increases." Not a single brick, a single plank, a single drop of concrete. Or else the PA is out of the talks. End of discussion.
The Netanyahu government imposed the total stoppage under great pressure from Washington and has resented every second the stop work order has been in effect. This resentment has been shared by a large and growing segment of the Israeli population generally. With the exception of the most pro-peace elements of society, the majority of Israelis have supported construction to meet the needs of natural increases.
No one in Israel has resented the halt more than Avigdor Lieberman, who is foreign minister and capo of the Yisrael Beitenu party. The YB is both very right wing and crucial to the continuation of the Netanyahu government. Leiberman has stated without any ambiguity that his party will pull out of the governing coalition if the moratorium is extended. YB is the second largest party in the Knesset following Netanyahu's Likud party, so the threat is both real and credible.
Even if the political crisis over settlement construction is avoided, Lieberman will remain a very tall speed bump in the "peace process." To put it bluntly--as Lieberman always does--the ForMin does not believe there is any possibility of a genuine peace agreement arising this year or even in the current generation. This world view has a pronounced tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another deal breaker is the requirement by Israel that any final (or interim) agreement explicitly characterize Israel as a "Jewish State." Netanyahu along with the majority of Israelis support this requirement without reservation. The Arabs oppose it. Whenever asked about this refusal, Abbas weasel words around something fierce. His non-answer answers are carefully crafted to deny the reality that Israel is--and was established as--a Jewish state.
The position of the PA is echoed (without any resort to the rhetoric of weasels) by Arab states generally. The Egyptian ForMin Aboul Gheit took the standard line for rejecting the proposition that Israel should be termed a "Jewish state." Gheit averred deep concern for the status of Arab citizens of Israel implying that they would be deprived of human and civil rights should Israel be considered a Jewish state. The touchingly tender regard for Arab civil and human rights expressed by Gheit and his peers throughout the region ignores completely that Arabs are and have been citizens of Israel for generations. Arabs have the same rights as Jews in Israel including the right to elect members of the Knesset.
The irony of Arab Muslim states which proudly define themselves as "Islamic" suddenly being frightened by the notion of a Jewish as opposed to secular Israel is easily explained. It is the hope (or expectation) that Arabs will win the "breeding war" between themselves and the Jewish population of Israel at some date in the future. The possibility of ending the "Zionist entity" in this way would, they fear, be ended should Israel be defined as a specifically "Jewish state."
These basic contextual matters must be addressed before the myriad of "details." Some of these "details" rise almost to the level of contextual. Among these is the question of what would constitute sufficient guarantees that the Palestinian state would not become the Gaza Strip on steroids? Certainly any guarantees must be more than those of the paper sort as the horrible experience of post-withdrawal Gaza has made clear.
Ms Clinton has a record of believing the UN is real. She would incline to turn the matter of credible guarantees, particularly those backed by a force on the ground, to the UN. She could (and probably will) point to UNIFIL as an example of efficient and effective UN peacekeeping.
The Israelis would see the matter in a completely different light. Their experience with the UN has been less than positive. More importantly, the growth of anti-Israel sentiments (which they fear with reason would not be lessened by any agreement between Israel and the PA) render the UN a less and less legitimate body.
The PA or at least its president reputedly insinuated that any US or other foreign force stationed on its soil could not include any Jewish troops. Perhaps President Abbas really does believe that an American, or British or whatever other soldier who happened to be Jewish would cheerfully betray his obligation to his country to somehow further some presumably dark Israeli design. Or, perhaps he is simply being more or less honestly antisemitic.
The religious/cultural prejudice shoe can fit on the Israeli foot. How comfortable would the government or citizens of Israel be if a peacekeeping force on the border with the PA territory included troops from Pakistan, Iran, or any member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference? Would this be mere "Islamophobia" or a legitimate apprehension based on the nature and character of both faith and culture?
The list of contextual and near contextual quality conundrums facing Hilary Clinton could be lengthened but that isn't necessary to establish the degree of difficulty facing her. Neither is the multi-page roster of lesser political or merely technical problems.
Our Secretary of State is taking on a diplomatic challenge before which even Talleyrand, Metternich, or Bismarck would have quailed. Even if she succeeds where so many others have either failed or failed to try, the irony remains. It is nothing but ironical that the signing of an agreement between the PA and Israel will not mean peace in the Mideast or even, necessarily the beginnings of comprehensive peace, but only the ending of one, politically irritating skirmish.