Another Roadmap

By encouraging equal diplomacy with both Israel and the Arab states, President Obama’s new peace plan is remarkably similar to Bush’s—George H.W. Bush’s, that is.

Osama bin Laden is worried. In his latest taped message, bin Laden-if it's really him-rehearses the litany of complaints that have emanated from Arab states, decade after decade, about Israel, but fails to offer anything fresh or new. At most, he complains about the "ideological terror of neoconservatives and the Israeli lobby" and that holdovers from the Bush administration, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, make it clear that there's no real distinction between Obama and his predecessor.

Bin Laden is grasping at straws. With the Obama administration putting pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, the era of ideological clashes between America and the Arab world is petering out. The Bush administration argued that Baghdad, not Jerusalem, was the road to peace. It fomented war to prove it.

Now Obama is following the opposite approach to pursue peace. The most revealing moment in James Traub's New York Times Magazine essay this past weekend about Israeli-American relations thus came when Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is quoted as telling Obama that "public disharmony between Israel and the U.S. is beneficial to neither" and "should be dealt with directly by the parties." The president responded: "I disagree. We had eight years of no daylight and no progress."

But will disharmony bring any more progress? Obama administration envoy George Mitchell has just visited Israel, where he saw both Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, who has preached peace for most of his career. Peres was upbeat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was more restrained. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu stated, "We clarified to the U.S. that we would continue building around 2,500 units whose construction had already begun. Two days ago, we authorized 450 additional units. I stated that we would consider reducing the extent of our building." Meanwhile, Haaretz also reports that Mitchell himself displayed his skills at obfuscation: "While the suggestions that we have finalized and reached agreement on a range of issues [are] inaccurate because they are premature, we hope they will be accurate in terms of moving forward in the very near future." 

It's easy enough to scoff at Mitchell, but it would be a mistake. Mitchell has the full backing of the White House. The greatest error, in turn, that has been made about President Obama is to underestimate his tenacity. He has two aims. The first is to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking and use a rapprochement between the two to build support for an anti-Iran coalition. Obama's immediate aim is to hold a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu and the United Nations this month to push forward a peace process.

In his approach toward the Middle East, the president that Obama is most reminiscent of is Bush-George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush got into hot water after the Gulf War when he tried to put pressure on Israel to curb its settlements. But Obama, like Bush 41, believes in diplomacy, both with Israel and the Arab states. What's more, as James Traub's essay indicates, Congress has begun to move away from its reflexive support of Israel and the settlements. Eight years of the George W. Bush administration did not leave Israel in a notably stronger strategic position. Quite the contrary.

Finally, Obama may also recognize that Netanyahu is the only Israeli prime minister who can deliver some kind of peace accord with the Palestinians. He and Lieberman are the perfect vehicles to reach some kind of accommodation. It has been Likud, not Labor, that has signed away the Sinai and retreated from the Gaza Strip. It would have to be Likud that abandons the dream of annexing the West Bank.

Whether the Israelis and Palestinians will actually reach an agreement is another matter. Both sides have abundant reasons for deferring reality. The Palestinians have wallowed in their victimhood, while the Israelis have seized the chance to establish new facts on the ground. As Obama seeks to detoxify the Middle East of its poisonous hatreds, however, those days may be coming to an end. May.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.