Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Middle East Hail Mary

President Obama's push for a 90-day settlement freeze is doomed to failure. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled the wool over Obama's eyes in landing $3 billion worth of fighter jets as well as a promise to veto any nasty UN resolutions aimed at Israel over the next year. It's a measly return for the investment that Obama is making. After three months expire, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will be further away than ever. Like Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, Obama is making one bad investment after another, while his fans become increasingly disgruntled.

My fellow blogger Paul Pillar essentially makes the above case, and does so persuasively. All too persuasively. But perhaps there is a case to be made for Obama's approach--it's a Hail Mary pass. Nothing else has worked in the Middle East. American president after president has attempted to bring about peace and failed. If Obama's attempt to break the log-jam doesn't work--and it probably won't--no one can, as Pillar himself notes, say that he didn't try.

But the real wrinkle in this drama remains Netanyahu. My surmise is that Netanyahu does want a deal. He goes down in history as a nullity if he doesn't obtain one. The only way he can match, or even surpass, the record of the founding fathers, and mother, of Israel is to reach some kind of accommodation. He has every incentive, as did Ariel Sharon, to betray his followers. Which is why he didn't "fleece" Obama, as PIllar vividly puts it. Instead, Obama provided Netanyahu with political cover by handing him a sweet deal. Yes, Netanyahu could dissolve his cabinet and form a more mainstream one. But his aim may be to keep a right-wing cabinet together as long as possible and use it, in turn, as cover for a deal with the Palestinians.

Writing in the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler calls Obama's move "a triumph of hope over experience." Maybe the only way for Obama to break the deadlock would be to offer his own plan for peace. With the 2012 election looming, Obama actually has only a few months to deliver on his promise of brokering a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Soon, he will be unable to exert any political pressure on Israel. But if he's reelected, then he can start the peace process all over again.