Obama’s Arab-Israeli Options

The Arab awakening has created new prisms through which Arabs view the world. The most striking example has been the Arab public’s seeming embrace of Western intervention in Libya, in contrast to the furious opposition to the intervention in Iraq.

As President Obama lays out his approach to the Middle East, he will need to be mindful of this prism for a newly empowered generation of Arabs seeking freedom and dignity. But there should be no doubt that the old prism of pain through which Arabs view the world, the Israeli-Palestinian will only be magnified in the months ahead. It cannot be avoided, and kicking the can forward is unlikely to make addressing this conflict any easier.

While the Arab awakening is not about the Arab-Israeli conflict as such, it would be a mistake not to see that at the core of the demand for dignity are multiple issues including foreign policy. Even though the Arab-Israeli issue is not the top priority for most Arabs, Arab public opinion has been angrier with Israel than Arab governments.

As democratic debates grow, this issue will undoubtedly be a visible factor, especially if there is some escalation in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In the absence of credible negotiations, there will be no one to restrain the debate.

In no place will this be more visible than in Egypt, where parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place just about the time the U.N. General Assembly is likely to take up the issue of Palestinian statehood.

For Israelis, understandably, the prism of evaluating the Arab awakening is how it will affect Israel, its security, and its relations with Arab states. As the debates in the Arab world unfold — with policy consequences at least akin to what transpired recently in Egypt’s independent and bold move to broker reconciliation among Palestinian factions — the Israelis will become far more defensive in a manner that will undoubtedly resonate in our own politics in Washington.

Even as we pretend that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be delinked from other issues in the Middle East, our own Congress always sees a link. If Egyptian-Israeli relations grow hostile this is bound to affect what Congress says and does. Israel remains a central prism through which many in Congress evaluate events in the Middle East.

And yet both Israel and the Arabs need a comprehensive peace deal even more now than before. The Israelis need the revalidation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty as an anchor of their security policy; for them, the promise of a comprehensive peace that includes such revalidation is worth much more than it was last year when they took relations with Egypt for granted. Aspiring Arab politicians will not want the distraction of conflict and tension as they seek to respond to the domestic needs of their people. This can be a basis for invigorating proposals for comprehensive peace. But the anchor of any comprehensive deal remains an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace.

It is easy to come up with excuses for why now is not the right moment, from internal Israeli politics to the Hamas-Fatah deal. But the truth is that any lasting deal will entail painful mutual compromises and no divided Palestinian leadership can sell such a deal to its public — certainly not in an environment of public uprisings. And Israelis would do well to repeat what they had done in times of crisis: forge their own national unity government in preparation for serious negotiations. But only Washington can lead and its relations with a revolutionary Arab world will depend on it.