The Washington Post and the New York Times are both running stories that seem to indicate President Obama remains absolutely committed to seeing an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and not necessarily in the half-step of a borders-first strategy or an "economic peace." Both pieces recount a recent meeting of former national security advisers hosted by current National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones. President Obama popped in on the March 24 meeting and the group ended up discussing what was obviously considered the greatest priority among the group - resolving the Israeli-Arab dispute.
David Ignatius' piece points out that the White House is "considering detailed interagency talks to frame the strategy and form a political consensus for it." Ignatius quotes an unnamed official admitting, "[i]ncrementalism hasn't worked." Helene Cooper's piece in the NYT further notes that Colin Powell chimed into the conversation rightly reminding the President that he would need to have his next steps planned out when the parties balked at the terms of an American presented peace plan, or I might add, when they present their "14 reservations" as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did with President Bush's ill-fated 2003 Roadmap.
What the conversation taking place in the White House shows is that the President is still being Obama. He has always been an idealist, but not an ideologue, pushing through his ideas very pragmatically. For a progressive watching his campaign and his administration, there have been a lot of flashbacks to growing up as a Chicago Bulls fan: lots of emotional ups and downs, expecting a win, wishing the team would play harder, wondering why Michael Jordan wasn't playing for that matter, and rejoicing when MJ finally decided to get in there and win the game.
When some in his administration, and certainly in the Democratic party, wanted to cut tail and run after the Massachusetts elections, the President issued new marching orders and went in for the win, determined to get some version of health care reform through. Now, perhaps the same thing is happening with peace for Israel and the region.
The administration seems to fall into three categories: there are those who wish to maintain the status quo, those who are afraid of the political capital that will inevitably need to be spent before peace can be had, and those who probably lack ideas of how to make this happen - but it seems that Jones and others never gave up on the necessity of ending this conflict. Now the President is once again pushing forward just when the Israelis are settled into their own version of the old Arab "three no's."
Before all the Arab states formally accepted in 2002 to normalize relations with Israel once the latter ended the occupation of Arab territory, they were famously tied to the slogan "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel." Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his own version: no to a halt in settlements, no to a shared Jerusalem, and no to a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territory.
You can expect neo-conservatives who support a continuation of the status quo to paint any consideration by the administration of how to finally end this conflict as "undue pressure" on Israel. Instead, they will argue for the "waiting for Godot" strategy of waiting for Israelis and Palestinians to come to an agreement entirely on their own. They will shout and scream that efforts to make peace by ending the occupation are an outrage and threat to Israel.
The opposite is true. The President deals with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the rest of the Middle East every day. He has looked and seen the abyss. He knows what lies in store for Israel and for the United States if the status quo continues. In the last month, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, and Secretary of Defense Gates have all emphasized in one way or another that the US-led resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict would improve America's ability to deal with all its Middle East challenges, including those with Iran. The President knows good (if obvious) advice when he hears it, and he's idealistic and visionary enough to believe in a future where Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs are at peace and where the US isn't constantly picking at this sore.
For Palestinians, it will no doubt be frustrating that the American imperative for a solution comes not primarily from a concern about Palestinian rights or overarching themes of justice, but from a cold-hearted calculation as to what is in Israel's and America's best interests. Any US-presented peace parameters will no doubt reflect this. Without a Palestinian national movement embodied in an ANC-like organization, the Palestinian ability to mobilize international and American support for a rights-based approach remains limited. Ask other oppressed groups who are not even on the radar screen of American or Israeli interests.
For Israelis and American Jews who want normalcy and security, there must be a desire for President Obama to succeed. Recent polls reinforce this. To those convinced of the benefits of eternal war, the President's promise of peace must seem threatening.
The problem this administration has always faced has been matching the President's idealism and vision with practical tactical steps. Undoubtedly, as with any administration, there are kinks to work out. But the first step remains the President's leadership. And he hasn't been willing to surrender that to those enamored with the current mess.