With the truce in the week-long Gaza war, Barack Obama is being prompted by right and left to re-engage and renew U.S. efforts to solve the core question of Middle East peace.
Before he gets reinvolved in peacemaking, our once-burned president should ask himself some hard questions.
Is real peace between Palestinians and Israelis even possible?
Is there any treaty that could be agreed to, or imposed, that would be acceptable to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, let alone to Hamas, which has emerged from its defiance of one of the most intensive bombardments of modern time with new prestige?
What are the obvious impediments to such a treaty?
First, Bibi Netanyahu, who has presided over the expansion of Israel settlements and joined Avigdor Lieberman, a supporter of ethnic cleansing of Israeli Arabs, in a coalition of the Israeli hard right.
Would Bibi agree to a treaty that required removal of scores of thousands of Israeli settlers from Judea and Samaria, when he opposed Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of a few thousand settlers from Gaza?
Would Bibi agree to Jerusalem becoming the capital of Palestine as well as Israel, a non-negotiable demand of Arab nations?
Could a Palestinian Authority that gives up all rights to Jerusalem survive?
A second roadblock is the correlation of forces in Washington.
Should Obama begin to pressure Israel to remove settlers from the West Bank and accept a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, he would ignite a firestorm among evangelical Christians, the Israeli Lobby, the neocons and a Congress that, not long ago, gave Bibi standing ovations after he dressed-down Barack Obama right in the Oval Office.
Obama has acquired much political capital with his election victory, but not that much.
In a Bibi-Barack face-off over settlements and Jerusalem, with whom would ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democrats looking to 2016 stand? As for the Republicans, we already know. Their policy on Israel: “No daylight between us,” and, “We’ve got your back.”
A third impediment is the altered environment between Israel and a newly radicalized Middle East.
Israel now looks north to a Lebanon where Hezbollah possesses more and better rockets than the metal-shop jobs Hamas fired off. Beyond lies a powerful Turkey whose prime minister just declared Israel a “terrorist” state.
To the northeast lies Syria, where the 40-year truce on the Golan is unlikely to last after Bashar al-Assad falls and is replaced by a Sunni regime rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, or becomes a failed state saturated with jihadists and loose chemical weapons.
To the east lies Jordan, wracked by riots, a monarchy that looks to be a candidate for an Arab Spring uprising.
To the south and west are Hamas, a Sinai that is a no man’s land, and an Egypt dominated by the Brotherhood, millions of whose people would like to see the Israeli peace treaty trashed.
Israel is as isolated as she has been in a region that is more hostile to her presence than perhaps at any time since the war of ’48.
The time of Yitzhak Rabin, when Israel had treaties with Egypt and Jordan and had entered into the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s PLO, seems ancient history. Looking back, with the Rabin assassination and Netanyahu accession, the window that appeared to be open may have closed for good.
Israelis appear now to have entrusted their future to a U.S.-guaranteed military superiority — F-16s, smart bombs and an Iron Dome missile defense — rather than peace talks and parchment.
Which is their call. But what of us? What do we have to show for decades of involvement in the Middle East?
Despite our “liberation” of Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya at a cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, despite plunging hundreds of billions into foreign aid, America’s influence has never been lower.
Hillary Clinton, who cut off her Asian tour to fly to Israel and Egypt, was a bystander in brokering the truce. She is not even allowed to talk to Hamas. For we have designated Hamas a terrorist organization.
Astonishing. What was Joe Stalin when Harry Truman talked with him at Potsdam? What was Nikita Khrushchev when Ike invited the “Butcher of Budapest” to Camp David? What was Chairman Mao when Richard Nixon toasted him in Beijing in 1972?
We tie our own hands and wonder why we cannot succeed.
Today, as Obama is being pushed toward another futile round of peacemaking in the Mideast, prodded to intervene in the ethnic-civil-sectarian war in Syria and goaded to draw a “red line” for war on Iran, he should ask himself:
How would America’s vital interests be imperiled by staying out of this particular quarrel, conflict or war? Why are all of these crises somehow ours to resolve? What are the odds that we can resolve them?
We are out of Iraq, and leaving Afghanistan by 2014. Should we go back in, or as Obama pledged, do our “nation-building” here at home?