On his second day in office in 2009, Barack Obama launched an ambitious effort to broker peace in the Middle East, ignoring warnings that neither Israelis nor Palestinians were ready for a deal. He was badly burned. Despite the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as an envoy and plenty of direct presidential involvement, the initiative flopped. Israelis and Palestinians never began substantial negotiations, and Obama’s first term ended with another mini-war in the Gaza Strip.
Four years later, the diplomatic landscape looks even more forbidding. Gaza remains firmly in the possession of the Hamas movement, which has not budged from its refusal to recognize Israel. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas appears to be crumbling, with Abbas himself contemplating retirement. An election this month in Israel appears likely to create one of most nationalist governments in the country’s history, one in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — regarded in the White House as a serious obstacle to any peace process — may represent the dovish left wing.
Yet if Obama were to listen to his European counterparts, Arab leaders and even his incoming secretary of state, he would, once again, make the “peace process” a top priority in his second term. The puzzling but persistent illogic behind this is worth deconstructing.
In Washington, some of the loudest calls for Obama’s reengagement come from the “realist” foreign policy camp, populated by figures such as former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft — and former senator Chuck Hagel, whom Obama is considering for defense secretary. These folks opposed the war in Iraq, and they reject U.S. intervention in Syria or military action against Iran’s nuclear program. They have been arguing for years that it is time for the United States to recognize limits to its power.
When it comes to Israel, however, the realists assume boundless U.S. strength. If only he chooses to do so, they argue, Obama could join with U.S. allies or the U.N Security Council in imposing a two-state solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, like it or not. The supposition seems to be that a United States too weak to force Bashar al-Assad out of Syria can compel Israel’s advanced democracy and the leaderless Palestinians to accept compromises they have resisted for decades.
There’s nothing wrong with the realists’ goal. Though often accused of being anti-Israel, Brzezinski and Scowcroft have proposed parameters for a Palestinian state close to those embraced by previous Israeli governments. Their solution is eminently logical; it’s the means of getting there that beggar belief. Obama’s first term was proof: The president proved unable even to force Israel to freeze settlements, or oblige the Palestinian Authority to negotiate — much less dictate a deal.
European governments mostly realized long ago that no U.S. administration would or could strong-arm the two sides. Yet they cling to another dogma, one that I suspect is shared by Secretary of State-to-be John Kerry: that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is the key to stabilizing the broader Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq. It’s an idea nourished by old and new Arab rulers across the region, from Egypt’s new Islamist president to the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who are eager to divert U.S. attention from their own troubles.
If Palestinian statehood is so crucial, then it must be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether the time is ripe. But is it? As Egypt polarizes between secular and Islamist camps, and Syria’s vicious war pits Sunni Muslims against Alawites and their Shiite allies, it seems clear that the region’s biggest conflicts are those of Arabs against Arabs. But Western governments are at a loss over what to do about these battles. For the Israelis and Palestinians there is, at least, a well-known formula: conferences to be arranged, shuttles between capitals, dickering over conditions and pre-conditions.
All this is not to argue that Obama should ignore the Israelis and Palestinians or abandon the cause of Palestinian statehood, which in the long run will be a building block of a modernized Middle East. U.S. neglect could be taken as license by Israeli nationalists to take steps to obstruct that future state; it could also prompt Palestinians to embrace more provocative measures, from firing more missiles from Gaza at Israeli cities to inciting a new uprising in the West Bank.
But what’s needed is a concerted but low-key policy, one that aims at creating conditions for a long-term solution but does not pretend that it can be delivered in the next year or two. Obama should encourage Israel’s new government to take palliative steps to ease movement and promote development in the West Bank; he should press Egypt’s ruling Islamists to exert a moderating influence over Hamas. Above all, he should accept the lesson of his first term: that making Middle East peace a presidential priority will not make it happen.
Read more from Opinions: