Can Obama Change the Game on Middle East Peace?

Can Obama Change the Game on Middle East Peace?

No one should have been surprised that there was no meeting of minds
between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu at their inaugural summit on Monday. Although the two men
proclaimed a shared commitment to having Israelis and Palestinians live in
peace, their views on how to get there remain substantially at odds. Now, as
Obama puts the finishing touches on a new peace plan to be unveiled shortly
— perhaps when he addresses the Muslim world from Cairo next month — the question facing the Administration is how to pursue its strategy with an
unenthusiastic Israeli partner.

At the White House, Netanyahu pointedly refused to endorse the principle
of Palestinian statehood, a cornerstone both of the peace process and of
U.S. Middle East policy. The Israeli leader made clear he wants the
Palestinians to govern themselves, but added the caveat that self-governance
would be “absent a handful of powers that could endanger the State of
Israel.” And
while he committed to holding talks with the Palestinian Authority, he added
a new precondition for peace, requiring that the Palestinians would have to
recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House next week, has so far rejected
that demand both out of concern for Israel’s Arab minority and because the
rights of Palestinian refugees have remained an issue on the negotiating
agenda of the peace process up to now.

President Obama has relinquished the previous Administration’s approach
by prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first year of his
first term, by showing a willingness to press the Israelis to live up to
their commitments under previous agreements — particularly with respect to
building settlements on land captured in 1967 — and by raising regional
expectations that the U.S. will commit to pressing for a two-state solution.
But how can Obama’s resolve to move the process forward be turned into

The approach adopted by the Clinton Administration — bringing Israel
and the Palestinians together in bilateral negotiations facilitated and
supported by the U.S. — is not likely to produce results today. The
moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who really reigns only over the West Bank, now
speaks for only a fraction of Palestinian public opinion, and Israel’s
security chief Yuval Diskin warned on Tuesday that Hamas would win any Palestinian
election held right now.

Meanwhile, Israel’s government is built on a right-wing consensus at odds
with such fundamentals of the peace process as Palestinian statehood,
freezing and evacuating West Bank settlements, and sharing Jerusalem. But
even when Israel was led by the centrist Ehud Olmert, Abbas reportedly
rejected the best peace deal the Israeli leader was able to offer during
last year’s talks about talks — an offer that reportedly conceded more
territory to the Palestinian state than the deal turned down by Yasser
Arafat at Camp David. So, the gulf between Israel’s best offer and the
bottom lines of the most moderate Palestinian leadership appear to be too
large to resolve in bilateral negotiations in which the Palestinians have no
leverage but nothing to lose, while the Israeli public is able to live with
the status quo for the foreseeable future.

Cynicism over the two-state solution has grown, meanwhile, on both sides
of the divide. Robert Malley, a negotiator on President Clinton’s team at
Camp David and who later gave advice to candidate Obama, has written a
thoughtful assessment of the declining prospects for the two-state solution,
along with Palestinian academic Hussein Agha, a longtime adviser to the
Palestinian leadership. They point out that right now, the two-state concept
has stronger support abroad than it does among Israelis and Palestinians,
both of whom have always seen it, in the best of times, as a bitter
compromise that the balance of forces compelled them to accept.

Malley and Agha have some blunt advice for Obama. Achieving success
“won’t be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won’t be
done by strengthening those leaders viewed by their own people as at best
weak, incompetent and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless and
reckless. It won’t be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful
distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former,
reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region’s
most relevant actors. It won’t be done by trying to perform better what was
performed before.” The mantras of the two-state solution have lost their
appeal through endless repetition, most passionately by foreigners often
deemed by one side or the other to be hostile to their aspirations.

Rather than finessing what Bush and Clinton before him started, Obama
may be forced to change the game, working with his partners in the Quartet
established during the Bush era and with the
Arab League to forge an international consensus on the parameters for a fair
solution to the conflict. That would require outlining the borders between
two states , how to share
Jerusalem, the fate of West Bank settlements and of Palestinian refugee
families who lost land and homes inside Israel in 1948. In such a scenario,
the focus of diplomacy would shift to coaxing, cajoling and and nudging both
sides towards implementing such a solution.

Obama on Monday wasn’t pressing Netanyahu to reverse himself on a
two-state solution, but his Administration has begun pushing insistently
that Israel freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. That practical step
toward the two-state destination will likely be the focus, for now, but the
Administration is hoping to persuade Arab states to help by offering Israel
fresh gestures of recognition in exchange for doing so. To that end, he
meets with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak next week. And when the U.S.
President meets Abbas, his focus will be both on relieving Israel’s
chokehold on Gaza and the West Bank, encouraging resolution of the crippling
stalemate in Palestinian politics and on helping the Palestinians assume
their responsibilities to create security conditions to enable Washington to
demand more progress from Israel.

That there will be a peace process under President Obama’s aegis is
beyond doubt right now, but it may look quite different from those that went
before it.

See TIME’s pictures of the week.