Eyes on Hillary Clinton as She Leads Mideast Peace Talks

Experts are split on whether the secretary of state has skills as a negotiator.

September 01, 2010, 12:46 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 2, 2010 — -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today stepped into the international spotlight, assuming the day-to-day responsibility of trying to broker a Mideast peace that has eluded her predecessors for decades.

Seated between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department, Clinton heralded the first direct negotiations between the parties in nearly two years.

Whether both sides can overcome a history of failed negotiations and dashed hopes will depend in large part on the individual leaders making difficult concessions, Clinton said.

"We cannot and will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people," she said.

After several hours of talks, both sides agreed to produce a framework for a permanent peace deal and hold a second round of direct negotiations in Egypt on Sept. 14 and 15. Clinton and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell are expected to attend.

"We will put our full weight behind these negotiations and will stand by the parties as they make the difficult decisions necessary to secure a better future for their citizens," said Mitchell as the talks were underway. "I believe these two leaders...are committed to doing what it takes to achieve the right results."

But experts say success in the months ahead will also depend on Clinton's skill as a diplomat and mediator.

Earlier Thursday,Clinton appeared to embrace the opportunity and the symbolism of the moment – speaking slowly and authoritatively, embracing her partners on both sides, and reminding the world of the difficulties to be expected on the road ahead.

"Those who oppose the cause of peace will try in every way possible to sabotage this process, as we have already seen this week," she said, referring to the killing Tuesday of four Israeli civilians by Hamas.

"The core issues at the center of these negotiations -- territory, security, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and others -- will get no easier if we wait, nor will they resolve themselves."

The talks, which also included Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, represent a formidable challenge for Clinton, who has spent months coaxing both sides back to the negotiating table.

They also raise the stakes for President Obama, who has set a goal of creating a two-state solution. He met with Netanyahu and Abbas in private sessions at the White House Wednesday and said he was "cautiously hopeful" a deal could be reached one year from now.

Does Clinton Have Skills to Broker Peace?

"I think she has credibility. Now whether that translates into diplomatic skills, I don't know," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. "Frankly, she's untested as a mediator."

Other observers see Clinton's experience as a politician as an asset because she will be able to not only discuss the policies but understand the politics of how Palestinian and Israeli leaders "sell" the negotiations to their peoples at home.

In an ABC News exclusive interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Clinton has the best type of political mind. "[It] knows where you meet the point of principle and knows where you need the subtlety and the compromise," he said.

Ahead of the talks, Clinton had requested historical background materials concerning past efforts at peace in the region, the ultimately unsuccessful one led by her husband, a source close to the secretary of state said.

"She has this relationship with this fellow who has spent some time talking to leaders -- you know President Clinton -- and she has benefitted from his direct experience," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Many regard regard President Jimmy Carter's 1979 Camp David Accords brokered between Israel and Egypt as the gold standard for negotiations, the Clinton source said.

When then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused to authorize the dismantling of any Israeli settlements, Carter's team suggested having the Israeli Parliament make the decision -- and it did. Carter has credited thinking outside of the box and being innovative as the key.

In an interview with James Laue, at the June 7, 1991, National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution, former President Jimmy Carter -- who successfully negotiated the 1979 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt -- preached creativity.

"You have to search for different avenues when you run up against a blank wall," he said. "You have to be innovative...to find some alternative route that might bring you to the same goals."

1979 Camp David Accords: the Gold Standard

"You really need to look at life or the negotiation as if it were a chessboard. Anticipating what the next move is and what the next move is after that," said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on the region to six secretaries of state.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated an end to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, said that audaciousness was part of testing the limits.

"The art of statesmanship is to find a position between stagnation and overextension, hopefully at the outer limit of what is possible," he said during a June 2008 interview on CNN.

In Miller's book, The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, he describes how in 1975 the Ford White House, frustrated with Israel during a peace negotiation, claimed it was "reassessing" its Middle East policy.

Years later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger admitted to Miller the "reassessment" was "theater…there was nothing to reassess." But Kissinger was eager to make the Israelis nervous and eventually they came to the table.

Former President Clinton once suggested that willpower also comes in handy. In his autobiography, "My Life," he described one very late night at Wye River -- where he conducted his own Mideast peace talks -- where his "strategy for success had now boiled down to endurance; I was determined to be the last man standing."

What the negotiators are doing when they're not negotiating might also play a role, Carter has said. By holding peace talks at Camp David, "it was a harmonious environment because Egyptians and Israelis who had been devoting their adult life to killing each other were required to swim in the same swimming pool, watch the same movies, play on the same tennis courts, throw horseshoes together, sit on the same rock and talks. That was all part of it."

ABC News' Kirit Radia, Enjoli Francis and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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