Diplomacy That Can't Be Delegated

By WARREN CHRISTOPHER

New York Times

December 30, 2004

Los Angeles

WE stand at a moment of rare opportunity for the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yasir Arafat's death makes a comprehensive settlement feasible once again. Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader, dominates the field for January's presidential election. If he wins, he could fulfill the commitment he made to "peaceful coexistence and cooperation" with Israel on that sunny day of high promise on the White House lawn in 1993.

The news this month gives us cause for hope: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel energized his plan to pull Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip by bringing the Labor Party into his government, a move that frees him from being held hostage to his own Likud Party's right wing. A sudden warming of the frosty relations between Israel and Egypt accompanied a signing of a three-way trade agreement among Egypt, Israel and the United States. And to give wings to hopes for peace, the European Union, the United States and Arab donor states met in Oslo to discuss a large increase in aid to the Palestinians.

What is missing now, and urgently needed, is the active hands-on involvement of the United States.

America has always been the indispensable party for progress in the Middle East. The brilliant efforts of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974 and 1975 brought about Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai and the peninsula's return to Egypt. President Jimmy Carter's legendary endeavors at Camp David in 1978 produced the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which was supported by American financial assistance to both countries. That aid continues to yield returns today. And when Israel and Jordan negotiated a peace accord in July 1994, King Hussein, the present King's father, told me that the negotiations could not have succeeded without tangible support from the United States, which was forthcoming in the form of debt forgiveness and military equipment.

But meaningful American involvement at this critical time will require more than words and dollars - it must take the form of action. It will not be enough for President Bush to make broad policy statements, however eloquent. It will also require something beyond telephone diplomacy by Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice. Reliance on these hands-off methods promises a continuation of the past four years' failures.

Only two approaches have a chance to produce success.

With the approval of the president, the secretary of state could commit to lead - and sustain - United States efforts toward peace, traveling to the region frequently and meeting eyeball-to-eyeball with the parties for extended negotiations. It would be clear that she is speaking for for the president. None of her aides, however able, would be received in the same way in the Middle East.

The problem is that this assignment would demand a great deal of Ms. Rice's energy - at a time when other crises in the world will demand her attention. Never in recent years has a secretary of state entered office with more dangerous problems on her plate. Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, terrorism - none can be handed off to someone else.

I know from personal experience that prolonged concentration on one issue can exact a price in some other corner of the world. Indeed, critics took me to task, with some justification, for devoting too much time (25 trips in four years) to peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. At least twice during my term in office, I diverted my aircraft toward Israel to personally grapple with the effects of guerilla-launched Katusha rocket attacks in Northern Israel on the fragile peace process. Based on these and similar moments, I both confess and warn: pursuit of Middle East peace can easily become an all-consuming endeavor.

The second, preferable, option would be the appointment by the president of a high-ranking United States emissary to the Middle East. Ms. Rice's famous closeness to the President should obviate any risk that the appointment would diminish her authority. The envoy should be someone who would immediately be recognized as speaking for the president - like former Secretary of State James A. Baker or John C. Danforth, the departing envoy to the United Nations. It should also be someone who is ready for a full-time assignment. This person must be prepared to establish a base of operations in the Middle East and to stay there for substantial periods of time. Patience and persistence, not parachute visits or photo ops, should be the modus operandi.

Under either approach, the president would need to meet with the parties at the White House or travel to the region whenever necessary. He would have to master the negotiations sufficiently to close the deal with the principals. The experiences of Presidents Carter and Bill Clinton show the importance of a president with detailed knowledge of the region, the issues and the proposals on the table.

Second-term presidents, emancipated from worries over winning re-election, usually cast an anxious eye toward the judgment of history. As President Bush reviews his priorities for the second term in the weeks leading up to his second inauguration, he would be wise to recognize the urgent need for United States leadership in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the Middle East peace effort, windows of opportunity close quickly. You've got to seize the moment.

Warren Christopher, co-chairman of the Pacific Council on International Policy, was secretary of state from 1993 to 1997.