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Five myths about Middle East peace

The Obama administration -- which spent the better part of the past year not sure whether it wanted to punish the Israelis or pander to them -- decided to make a comprehensive freeze on settlements the make-or-break issue. President Obama believed (wrongly) that he could push the Israelis into agreeing to such a freeze, something not even the most dovish Israeli prime minister would ever do. As recently as last month at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama stated that Israel should extend the settlement moratorium -- when it was already clear that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not. Such declarations make the United States look weak and feckless.

The administration may be learning. To keep the current talks afloat, it seems to be offering both sides assurances on the substance of the negotiations: for the Israelis, security guarantees that might constrain Palestinian sovereignty; for the Palestinians, a commitment on the June 1967 borders, with land swaps from Israel proper for any West Bank territory the Israelis plan to annex. This is risky if the assurances go too far, but it shows that Obama now understands that fighting Israel over settlements is a dead end.

5. Arab-Israeli peace is critical to securing U.S. interests in the Middle East.

It would help, but it wouldn't come close to overcoming our challenges in a region so troubled and turbulent. National security adviser James Jones got caught up in this belief, asserting in 2009 that "if there was one problem that I would recommend to the president [to solve], this would be it."

Arab-Israeli peace will not stabilize Afghanistan or facilitate an extrication of U.S. forces from there. It will not create a viable political contract among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It will not stop Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon. It will not force Arab states to respect human rights. Nor will it end anti-American sentiment fueled by our support for authoritarian Arab regimes, our deployment of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, our war against terror and our close relationship with Israel.

In fact, an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that does not prove viable and is not seen as fair will make our position in this region even more difficult. The president shouldn't minimize the importance of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but he shouldn't oversell it, either.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has advised several U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process. He is the author of the forthcoming "Can America Have Another Great President?"

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