The last time President Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz proposed a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in 1982, one simple mistake cost them success: Shultz asked a bad question. If Shultz asks a better question on his current trip to the Middle East, a historic breakthrough is possible.
The Reagan Administration's first comprehensive peace plan proposed a halt to further Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the establishment of full Palestinian autonomy in those areas and, eventually, a self-governing entity in association with Jordan. In return, Israel was to receive security guarantees and recognition as a state, particularly by the Arab world. Annexation or permanent control by Israel was precluded, as was an independent Palestinian state.
Experienced observers praised the Reagan plan as a sound approach, and the Israeli, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian governments all considered it.
Then Shultz erred. He asked the governments if they would accept the plan as a basis for discussion. The answer, predictably, was no. Each government reckoned, "If we say no and the other side says no , we lose nothing. If we say no and they say yes , we will be stronger because the next American proposal will have to move in our direction. But if we say yes , we imply that the plan is our opening position from which we are willing to make concessions." The question itself pushed each government, behaving rationally, to reject the Reagan plan.
The tragic comedy of Shultz's question was that the governments already were discussing the plan (as they are discussing the latest plan) without the necessity of a formal decision to discuss it.
What Shultz should have asked then, and ought to ask now, is: "What legitimate interests of yours does my draft plan fail to meet? How?" This would give each government the opportunity to criticize the plan, and in the process reveal each country's root concerns and interests. And each government leader could proudly (and truthfully) announce to his constituents: "We did not give in!"
With those criticisms in hand, Shultz should return to the Washington drawing board and try to redraft the plan to meet each side's legitimate interests. He could then dispatch his assistant secretary for the Middle East, Richard Murphy, to collect another round of criticisms on the revised draft. This process of collecting criticisms and redrafting could be repeated several times, until Shultz believes that the plan is as good as it is going to get.
Then Shultz could return to the region and tell each government, "We have listened to your criticisms and tried to meet them. I now have a final proposal for you, which I believe is the very best that we can do. This is our last attempt; no more changes will be made. I now ask you for a simple yes or no. Will you accept this now?" At that point each government will have to choose between the potential benefits of the American plan and the costs and uncertainty of continued violence and diplomatic drift.
This approach, known as the one-text procedure, is one of the few techniques with a proven track record in Middle East diplomacy. President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance used it at Camp David, and the Carter Administration continued to use it in mediating the various agreements implementing the Camp David accords. The one-text procedure works because it enables the parties to a conflict to move toward agreement without making public concessions.
The one-text approach may be the only effective technique for the fractious domestic situation in Israel. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres could comment independently on Shultz's drafts. No formal decision would be needed until Shultz presented the final, take-it-or-leave-it proposal.
With less than a year in office remaining, Shultz may be tempted to rush. If he uses the one-text procedure now, it may take a month or two to redraft and improve his proposal. But that extra time--and asking the right question--may well determine whether Ronald Reagan and George Shultz wind up on the short list of Middle East peacemakers or on the much longer list of well-intentioned failures.