Although the time may seem right to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process, President Obama should wait until he has more political capital.
In March of this year, President Obama will visit Israel for the first time in his administration. The trip, which will also include Jordan and the West Bank, presents a paradox. On the one hand, it occurs at a critical time in Middle East politics: the Syrian and Iranian crises are eroding regional security, the ramifications of the Arab Spring are not fully known, and two key political leaders – Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu – have won re-election. On the other hand, U.S. expectations for the trip are low. Yet low expectations are not inherently bad, as it is better to start small than to aim too high and fail. Obama should stick to a moderate script, avoid new policy initiatives or attempts to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process, and focus on gaining the political capital necessary for a renewed Arab-Israeli peace effort to be successful later on.
It is unclear how much President Obama will invest in Arab-Israeli peace during his second term. Although initial expectations for Obama’s foreign policy were high, his administration has been marked more by pragmatic stewardship than by bold initiative. As one veteran diplomat recently noted, efforts to resume the peace process are generally fraught with pitfalls. But many people believe there are good reasons to push for a renewed American effort sooner rather than later. First, the domestic politics are promising. After re-election, the President has more discretion in foreign policy. Conversely, Prime Minister Netanyahu must govern with a more centrist coalition. His selection of Tzipi Livni as Minister of Justice reflects the Israeli people’s desire for a negotiated settlement. As a liberal leader of the Hatnuah party and dedicated advocate of a two-state solution, Livni is well situated to be a trusted negotiating partner with the Palestinian Authority.
Second, many observers think that international politics should impart a sense of urgency. The Arab Awakening, still unfolding, signals a new era of Arab populism. This bodes well for democracy in the long run, but Islamist victories at the ballot box are making Israeli leaders rightfully nervous. Going forward, it will become increasingly difficult for Arab leaders to negotiate with Israel if their publics exercise greater influence over foreign affairs. Moreover, the United States cannot maintain an unlimited strategic investment in the Middle East. As the United States pivots to Asia, it will likely be increasingly less inclined to invest significant diplomatic resources in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. These reasons make a renewed peace effort tempting for the Obama administration.
However, it would be a mistake to launch a new initiative on this particular trip. Several Middle East crises – in particular the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian armed conflict – are more in need of U.S. attention in 2013. Building political capital now and spending it later will better serve the peace process. President Obama should tour Israel and the West Bank, make the requisite visit to Yad Vashem, and connect with the public. Like former Presidents Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr., Obama should seize a valuable opportunity to address the Israeli Knesset. Striking the right tone there – one of partnership, security, and respect – will help build relationships with Israeli lawmakers, enhance the Israeli public’s perception of him, and guard against U.S. congressional criticism. Conversely, nothing can be gained by announcing new policy, making dubious commitments, or raising expectations.
As always, one charts no easy course through Middle East diplomacy. The upcoming visit may in fact be perfunctory, but care must be taken to avoid that perception. After all, the Israelis are quite excited: the visit has both an official national moniker (“Unbreakable Alliance”) and logo (an Israeli and American flag fused together). This year can seem both right and wrong for re-launching peace talks, depending on the point of view. Bold action may be required to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, but President Obama must avoid any such thing – for now.
Ben Nelson is a first-year master’s degree student in International Affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His focus is U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics. He can be followed on Twitter under the handle @nelsondb1981.
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