HAVING WORKED for the administrations of five former presidents, I want to offer some very unsolicited advice about the challenges the Obama administration faces in dealing with the Arab-Israeli situation. It's neither the most nor least important issue America faces abroad, nor even in the Middle East; yet experts and pundits will spill gallons of ink arguing over how important it really is to protecting American interests. But one thing about the conflict is painfully clear: unless the president tries to manage it, it will manage him.
Most American presidents have failed in dealing with what Harry Truman called the fifty-year headache. It is a two-part headache really-on one level a conflict between Israel and its Arab-state neighbors, both those who share contiguous borders with Israel and those who do not. And on another level it is a conflict between Israel and a Palestinian nationalist movement. Indeed, in the course of its involvements, the United States has had few successes in brokering agreements between these states, a handful of moments really where a combination of changes in the region and tough, smart American diplomacy came together to produce results.
Near and far misses-not to mention outright failures-have been the norm. Given the growing importance of the entire region to our national interests, continued floundering on Arab-Israeli peacemaking is something we can no longer afford. For the past sixteen years-under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush-America has stumbled at peacemaking and bumbled at making war. As a result, we are neither feared, respected nor admired as much as we need to be in a part of the world from which the principal threat to America's security is likely to come.