BOSTON — On day one in the White House, President Barack Obama’s first phone calls were to the four leaders of the Middle East who are now gathered in Washington for peace talks.
On day two, Obama’s first announcement was that his special envoy for the Middle East would be George Mitchell, the man who has worked for 20 months to pull these talks together.
From the very beginning, Obama has sought to telegraph to the world, to the region and to America that he is genuinely intent on solving the most intractable issue of the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And so today, when he brings together the Israeli and Palestinian leaders for the first direct peace talks in nearly two years, he will claim he’s sticking to a set plan he’s had from the beginning.
But to anyone who has spent time in the Middle East it is tragically obvious that this kind of seriousness of purpose and micro-management of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is not how you get it done. In fact, this kind of full-court press, particularly one with a time frame imposed upon it, can backfire in terrible ways.
Just ask former President Bill Clinton, who spent years focusing on bringing the two sides together only to see his determined efforts collapse into more violence and bloodshed.
The way an American president successfully brokers a Middle East peace deal is to have a keen sense of timing and to simply be lucky enough to work with leaders who are sufficiently bold and confident to understand what a peace agreement would mean for their country.
And right now, Obama is just not that lucky.
Neither the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have the support from their respective constituencies that they would need to provide the courage to make a lasting deal.
Netanyahu’s coalition in the Israeli parliament is tenuously held together with duct tape and a grouping of far right parties that would rather topple his government than see land returned to the Palestinians.
And Abbas’ authority is strung together with baling wire between the West Bank, which he barely controls, and Gaza, where he has virtually no authority as Hamas continues to assert its firm grip on power.
Hamas’ assertion of that power and their intent to derail any efforts toward peace was written in blood Tuesday when they claimed credit for the attack that killed four Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The last American president lucky enough to have leaders with the requisite confidence and courage to bring about peace was Jimmy Carter.
Carter was able to rely on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Both Sadat and Begin brought strong leadership of their political constituencies to the bargaining table and both men had come to understand that a peace agreement would provide a golden opportunity for their respective states.
Sadat was, of course, assassinated for his courage to sign the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel. But the agreement has held to this day.
So if the stars do not appear to be aligned for a successful round of peace talks, why would the Obama administration plunge into them?
The kind interpretation is that the administration naively believes that it might create a positive momentum in the region by taking on three vexing issues in the Middle East at the same time: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ethnic-divisions in Iraq and the need to contain Iran. Once again, Obama should be talking to the husband of his secretary of state for some history on this. President Clinton tried this strategy and it was known then as “dual containment" with Iraq and Iran. When the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed it all came apart like a cheap suit.
The less kind interpretation as to why the Obama administration is taking this on now is that it simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and there are quite a few experts in the Middle East who would see it this way.
The administration’s diplomatic and strategic leadership, even the patient and hard-working Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, may simply fail to understand the uniquely volatile nature of his new assignment. If Mitchell thinks the same kind of dogged efforts -- and his reliance on a fixed deadline to force the parties together -- that helped him with the Good Friday agreement can be replicated in Israel-Palestine, most analysts of the region would say he is sorely mistaken. Sadly, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict setting, a hard time table is not like turning over a diplomatic hour glass, it is more akin to setting a slow burning fuse that too often explodes into more violence.
Still, history is made by those who are willing to do what none thought could be done.
And so with new hope that history might be in the making, yet another chapter in the long tortured and tedious history of the Middle East peace process is set to begin as Obama, along with Netanyahu and Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, gather for a series of talks over the next two days. Today, the talks will take place in the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presiding over the forum.
The first hurdle is whether Israel will agree to extend the moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank that is set to expire on Sept. 26. Abbas has said the talks would fall apart if Israel fails in this regard. And after that hurdle comes the threat from Hamas and whether Abbas’ security services will be able to contain the movement’s attacks on Israel and the settlements.
Then, even if they can get past these immediate issues, the looming issues of establishing the boundaries of a two-state solution, the pressing issue of whether Palestinians will ever have the “right of return” to land occupied after the 1967 Six Day War and, of course, the eternal question of control of the holy city of Jerusalem.
With all of these challenges before the leaders who are coming to the bargaining table, it’s obvious that none of us, not even those who truly hope for peace, should be holding our breath.