A step forward for peace in the Middle East

At a time when our country is exhausted by hearing bad news from the Middle East, and after having watched so many U.S. peace initiatives in the region fail, it is interesting to see the enthusiasm and optimism of Secretary John Kerry as he battles the seemingly impossible challenge of helping to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Every U.S. administration since 1967 has tried to contribute to a peace process. As U.S. Ambassador to Morocco from 1997-2001, I played a small role in talks that came close, but ultimately failed, to reach a compromise at the end of the Clinton administration.

I was present when the final deal was offered to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, first presented in a meeting in Rabat, Morocco to President Arafat on December 11, 2000.  A few weeks later, at a point when all parties were feeling optimistic and the final deadline had come, the deal was turned down by President Arafat — although both parties continued good faith negotiations after President Clinton’s term ended.  Three months later Shimon Peres summed up the failure to me, “Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity… Barak never set a red line he didn’t want to redraw.”

It’s hard to imagine that Secretary Kerry, less than a year into his new job, would have any more luck than all those other Americans who have tried before, including Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes, as well as Henry Kissinger, George Mitchell and many skilled diplomats at the State Department.

However, I am always reminded that most compromises have come together in the Middle East when it has seemed the least likely.  A couple of things caught my attention earlier this month that made me look more closely at this round of negotiations. 

First, Martin Indyk is back as the lead U.S. negotiator involved in the peace process. Ambassador Indyk was U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State at the same time that I served in Morocco. He knows the history of the negotiations, what worked and what didn’t, and is a very clever negotiator who understands what each side needs in order to take a risk for peace. Already, out of the light of the cameras and the press, he is making some progress.

While peace in the Middle East is one of the U.S.’s most important interests, it will take much more than committed American diplomacy to solve this issue. The other event that I believe will have a positive effect is the recent meeting of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

On January 17, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, as chairman of the Committee, convened the first meeting in more than a decade. At the meeting in Marrakech, the king called for support from all Islamic countries for the U.S. initiative to renew peace negotiations, describing the recent American efforts as having “given fresh, constructive momentum to the peace process.”  He asked all countries to step beyond their comfort zone in supporting the initiative.

King Mohammed’s remarks concluding the al-Quds meeting were eloquent and carefully chosen:

“The road to peace is as long as it is arduous. It requires tremendous sacrifices on all sides. It also calls for consensus, realism and courage to make crucial, painful decisions, allowing reason, wisdom, hope and the quest for life to prevail over hatred, extremism, despair and aggression, for the benefit of the peoples in the region.”

King Mohammed and his leadership are not new to the peace process. In 2000, when President Clinton offered the parameters of an accord, King Mohammed VI was the first to act by providing his counsel and encouragement to both President Arafat, and to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The King wields great influence in the Arab and Islamic world given not only his recognized, progressive leadership but also the rare, wide-ranging respect for Morocco among fellow Arab and Muslim leaders, Israeli officials, and other key European and U.S. interests.

Of course, the two most important members of any Middle East peace process are the Israelis and the Palestinians. Though the rest of the world is highly skeptical, with serious new efforts by important members of the group that came so close in 2000, maybe now is the quiet moment for the peacemakers on both sides to make real progress.

Timing is everything, and whether they succeed or not, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Indyk, and King Mohammed deserve credit for at least trying to address this issue. Perhaps, knowing their history, we have reason for optimism after all.

Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco.