Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Your Deal, Mr. President

"In a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped "over the next several months, that you start seeing gestures of good faith on all sides. I don't want to get into the details of what those gestures might be, but I think that the parties in the region probably have a pretty good recognition of what intermediate steps could be taken as confidence-building measures."
- Haaretz, this morning.

This all sounds so reasonable: the parties to the conflict will build confidence toward a subsequent negotiation; Israel will freeze settlements, the Arab countries will invite Israeli academics to conferences. And it was reasonable after the 1973 War. But does the president seriously think he can do now what Jimmy Carter did after Camp David, only try harder?

Forgive me for confessing to that sinking feeling, but the language is all wrong here.

Framing the peace process as a negotiation between the interested parties, with more or less active American facilitation, will not work, for reasons I (and others) have laid out, again and again. Colin Powell once said that America cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. It was one of the most fatuous formulations by an American Secretary of State in a long series.

In fact, the leaders of Israel and Palestine will not want peace more than their fanatic oppositions; and they will cling to power by trafficking in the demagogy of national solidarity. Moreover, America is itself an interested party. It is time for the Quartet to present its plan, from Jerusalem to refugees. Oh, and don't we all know what the plan is, from Jerusalem to refugees?

Obama is the first president since Eisenhower with the sophistication, popularity, and objectivity to rally the Western allies to (in effect) impose a just settlement on the region. He knows how to speak about a world order rooted in collective security, federal institutions, and democratic alliances. He can be the face of international peacekeeping. If, as we all suspect, he means to push the sides toward a deal, there is no obvious reason apply pressure privately. It is time he started talking more like John Foster Dulles and less like Oprah.

Obama, in other words, has to start by imposing an agenda on Israel's conversation. He can win over Israelis eventually, but only if every front page story for the next six months is about whether or not Bibi and Lieberman are destroying relations with Washington. That is the only thing Israeli elites fear more than the loss of solidarity. That is what empowers the peace camp, such as it is: the chance to appear, not the party of concessions, but the party of America.