About the Author: Sean McCormack serves as the Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.
If there is a well worn groove in American diplomacy, it is the flight path between Washington and Jerusalem (and more recently Ramallah), a path we have followed as well having just concluded our seventh trip to the "region" in about nine months. As with much in diplomacy, it is important to learn from the past but not be captive to it. In that regard, it is worth noting for you a few ways in which the current process differs with the past.
One lesson learned is that leaks to the media can kill ongoing negotiations. We've all seen it before, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that the well timed leak designed to place someone else at a disadvantage is an art form in the Middle East writ large, but most especially in Israel and the Palestinian territories. During the current political negotiations, however, we have had very few leaks to the media about the substance of what is being discussed between the two sides. There will come a time to speak in public about what has been agreed, but to talk about incomplete discussions would be premature and harmful to what the Israelis and Palestinians are trying to do. And, ultimately, any concerns about how they negotiate will be wiped away in the end by public judgment of what they negotiated. We, by the way, fully encourage continuation of the current news blackout as it helps the two sides build trust as they hammer away at the most delicate issues, such as borders, security, right of return for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.
We have also taken a slightly different tack in monitoring some of the practical, on the ground changes that need to occur in the process to bring about a Palestine and an Israel that are peaceful neighbors. Secretary Rice asked Lieutenant General Will Fraser (U.S. Air Force) to serve as the "Roadmap" monitor. You can Google "Middle East Roadmap" and get as much detail as you would like about the Roadmap. At its most basic, the document lists a series of obligations each side has agreed that will help lead to the two-state solution. These obligations include such things as removal of roadblocks, checkpoints, and illegal outposts by the Israelis and the building of an effective security force and legal processes by the Palestinians in order to fight terror effectively and to maintain security in Palestinians areas. Fulfillment of obligations by each side would not only improve the situation on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians, but by completing items on the list both sides help build an effective, peaceful, and mutually beneficial relationship necessary for them to live as neighbors. Almost as important as the role itself is the man selected to fill it. Lt. Gen. Fraser also serves as Assistant to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (his day job) and as an adviser to Secretary Rice. He travels with her on nearly every overseas trip and is an integral part of her team.
What Lt. Gen. Fraser has been able to accomplish in his "spare time" as Roadmap monitor is truly impressive. Through painstaking data collection and site visits, he has built an analytical process for measuring each side's compliance with its obligations. For example, he and his team have a built a database of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank that did not previously exist. We, and the parties, now have a picture of how checkpoints and roadblocks function, how they got there, what each contributes to security, and how each affects movement of goods and people. Why is that important? Well, in order to gain maximum positive effect for any given action, all sides need to understand potential costs and potential benefits for any move. By quantifying these variables, we can move beyond mere assertions by both sides and have a more rational, productive conversation. While it might make for a better press release to say 50 roadblocks have been removed, the reality may be that removing the right 20 roadblocks may have more net benefit to both sides. In a process as fraught with emotion as this one, Lt. Gen. Fraser's contribution of placing these issues on a sound analytical foundation has been enormous. You should also know that he is a pilot with command experience in B-52, B-1, and B-2 aircraft, and he has been nominated by the President to serve as the next Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. The patience and precision required of pilot have come in handy in the kinds of duties which Lt. Gen. Fraser has been charged with and succeeded in during his Roadmap responsibilities.
While these are a couple of ways in which we are trying to put the lessons of the past to good use, old fashioned deal-making, political will, and a bit of good fortune will be key ingredients in determining when the parties will succeed.
One other point, you should know that we are still pushing for a deal between the two parities by the end of 2008 -- the agreed goal at last November's Annapolis peace conference. Judging by some of the stories about Secretary Rice's trip, though, you would be forgiven for thinking that's not the case and that we had thrown in the towel because of uncertain politics in Israel and the Palestinians territories. After having sat in some of today's meetings between Secretary Rice and both the Israelis and the Palestinians, I can say firsthand that the Annapolis goal remains the goal.