Back to the Beginning in the Middle East

Let us, for a moment, imagine what it might have been like in mid-February, 2009, if Barack Obama, then a new president, perhaps a transformational president (he was, after all, the first African-American elected to the job), decided that, in foreign policy, he would focus on the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiation and, miracle of miracles, produce a breakthrough. Miracles have been known to happen in that part of the world.

Instead of opening his Mid-East diplomacy with a cutting critique of Israel’s cantankerous settlements policy, often considered the third rail of Israeli politics, instead of traveling first to Egypt, where he delivered a warm speech, opening his arms to the Arab and Muslim worlds, but ignoring Israel, which proved to be a stunning blunder, instead of allowing, even encouraging, a discomfiting coolness in Israeli-American relations, instead of monopolizing America’s foreign policy rather than leaving some of the legwork to his secretary of state—instead of all this, if Obama did then what he appears to be doing now, four wasted years later, the Israelis and the Palestinians might be engaging in serious, face-to-face negotiations on a peace treaty by this time. Who knows?

Now, Obama appears to be allowing his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to play a major role in the sensitive Palestinian-Israeli negotiation, a subject in which the former Senator has a passionate interest. He never allowed his first Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, once his principal opponent in the Democratic race to the White House, to lead an American initiative in this area, to engage in the sort of “shuttle diplomacy” that brought not only results but fame to another Secretary of State, named Henry Kissinger. On his first weekend as the nation’s top diplomat, Kerry made news by telephoning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, informing both that he intended to visit the Middle East very soon, his way of signaling a new American activism in the region, particularly in the dormant negotiation between these two old antagonists.

Soon thereafter, apparently not by coincidence, the White House announced that the president himself will visit the Middle East on March 20—in other words, to do now what he should have done in 2009, namely, visit Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and, then as a gesture to a tottering ally, Jordan. On this trip, he will not visit Egypt, perhaps because an unstable Egypt may be too dangerous a destination.

According to American experts, Obama wants to focus on two main subjects in his talks with Netanyahu–Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s convulsing civil war. But Netanyahu, having already talked to Kerry, expects the president to raise another hot topic—namely, the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. Netanyahu told his Cabinet last Sunday that this subject is very much on the president’s mind. “There is no doubt,” Netanyahu is quoted as saying, “this matter will be part of the work of the next government.” The prime minister is in the process of forming a new, broad-based government in Israel, one result of a political shake-up after the recent election that weakened his own base of political support and strengthened new and moderate forces more eager than he to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

If Obama is, in fact, intent on launching a new American initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, he knows, or should know, that this effort requires a great deal of advance preparation, and little has been done. Realistically, Obama can do little more on this visit to the Middle East than set the stage for the negotiation and then leave it to his secretary of state to do the daunting, detailed legwork, starting with reopening the stalled dialogue between Netanyahu and Abbas. Then the serious work begins. Fortunately, for Kerry, he would have to shuttle only a short distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the interim Palestinian capital.

2013 may be the year, theoretically, for the US to pivot to Asia and the Pacific, but it is likely that this strategic pivot may have to be delayed, in part because the Middle East has a way of nipping at America’s heels. The crises in Iran and Syria may demand Obama’s attention this year. No one really knows, or so it seems, but Iran may be on the edge finally of developing a nuclear bomb. Is she six months away, or a year? And what does Obama do? He is on the record as saying the US will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even using its military power to do so. Syria is absorbed in a civil war of increasing intensity and danger. The US may be changing its policy about providing lethal weapons to the anti-Assad opposition, but everyone asks, who is the opposition? Can it be trusted? Or is it a new incarnation of al-Qaeda?

And then there is the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation, for which guarantees of success can only be described as being in short supply. If even modest success were possible, it would clearly make it easier for the US and Israel to coordinate their strategies on the Iranian nuclear threat and on the unpredictable but deadly civil war in Syria.

Every president seems to harbor a secret dream to bring peace to the holy land. This is now Obama’s turn. In 2009, he started out with such high hopes and expectations and then quickly stumbled. Maybe now, four years later, he will do better. Maybe this is his time. Let’s wish him well.