Argument

Sobering up on Arab-Israeli Peace

After a bruising first year, Barack Obama is realizing that the Middle East peace game is much tougher than he imagined.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Big decisions should never be made after a night of hard drinking or on the basis of wishful thinking.

Almost a year into his presidency, Barack Obama has begun to sober up. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the administration’s policy on the Arab-Israeli issue, where a series of tactical mistakes (none fatal) have left the president and his team battered but wiser when it comes to what’s possible and what’s not.

Life’s for learning, as the song goes, and I’m not counting Obama out by any means. His commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deep. But his greatest challenge will be how to reconcile his own risk-readiness and sense of urgency with regional leaders who simply don’t appear to be that ready or that much in a hurry. This unhappy set of circumstances, in which regional leaders don’t own their own peace process, has never been ideal for success in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

First, a word of caution and perspective for all you Arab-Israeli addicts out there. FDR’s quip about Lincoln — that he died a sad man because he couldn’t have everything — is a political law of gravity in Washington. Governing is about choosing, setting priorities because presidents just can’t do everything.

Even in the seemingly wondrous and miraculous age of Obama, that’s true.

This administration has ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which Americans are being killed and wounded, an intelligence/homeland security defense that has been proven profoundly wanting in the wake of the abortive Christmas terror attack against an American passenger airliner bound for Detroit, and a set of domestic priorities that include a still-dangerous jobless recovery and still-unfinished and controversial health- care legislation.

All of this will get worse (or better) in 2010 against the backdrop of midterm congressional elections in which the Democrats, already lacking a secure popular base of support beyond their own party stalwarts (and they’re unhappy too), may well suffer significant losses. None of this precludes a major effort on Arab-Israeli peacemaking but it makes the risk or success (ensuring a tough fight with the Israelis and their supporters here) or failure (meaning the administration has stumbled badly) all the more consequential politically.

It’s not that Obama doesn’t care about the Arab-Israeli issue. But it’s not the fulcrum of his foreign-policy agenda. If he succeeds in preventing another attack on the continental United States before 2012, avoids serious American casualties in Afghanistan, reduces unemployment significantly, and Americans begin to see the future with a bit more optimism, he’ll likely be reelected. He doesn’t need Arab-Israeli peace to be considered a consequential president.

That said, in his first year, the president came out harder, faster, and louder on the Israeli-Palestinian issue than any of his predecessors. Appointing the talented and tenacious George Mitchell as special envoy and talking tough against Israeli settlements, and in a very determined manner about a two-state solution, won him great praise initially.

Unfortunately all of this was played out without much regard for an overall strategy or much sensibility to the political needs of either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The misreading of the Israeli scene was particularly inept. By publicly calling for a comprehensive settlements freeze including natural growth, a position no Israeli prime minister — even one with the most pro-peace credentials — could ever agree to, the administration undermined the freeze it eventually did get (minus Jerusalem of course). The president then had to back down and was left with no freeze acceptable to the Arabs and no negotiations.

By year’s end, the administration was left with three big "Nos": the first from Israel on settlements; the second from the Arab states on partial normalization with Israel, and the third from the Palestinians about returning to the negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas was particularly hurt by administration pressure to distance himself from the Goldstone report and by the looming prospect of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. All of this, of course made America seem weak and feckless — never a good place if you want to be a credible mediator.

In fairness to the Obama administration, the United States faces a very tough situation. Weak leaders, divisions within the Palestinian national movement, big gaps on the core issues (Jerusalem, security, and refugees) and an unwillingness on the part of both sides to pay the price make a conflict-ending accord doubtful.

There’s always the chance of something less on the Israeli-Palestinian track or even the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. But to get anywhere, Benjamin Netanyahu, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Abbas will need to make big, tough decisions.

The coming year may well bring a resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Obama administration is working hard to bring this about, and is reportedly working on letters of assurance that might enable both sides to stay at the table once they get there. But if Mitchell’s comments Wednesday are any indication — he told journalist Charlie Rose that he expects negotiations, once begun, to take two years to complete — Team Obama now understands the difficulties much better than it did a year ago.

In a strange way, both Israelis and Palestinians may need talks to resume: Abbas to show that he’s still relevant, particularly if Hamas pulls off the prisoner exchange with the Israelis, and Netanyahu, who wants to show that he’s a peacemaker and has options.

The core question is not "Do they want to start?," but "Can they finish?" Resumption of negotiations and a collapse would be a disaster, so everyone will look to the Obama administration to keep the process alive and headed credibly in the right direction, including by putting its views on the table.

If the president succeeds in getting this started, he’ll only have two choices: deep or deeper involvement. But even if he’s prepared to do his part, both sides will have to come to own the talks and to invest in them. If they don’t, no matter what Barack Obama wants, you might just as well hang a "closed for the season" sign on the prospects of a two-state solution for now and for the foreseeable future.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
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