I am just returning from the Middle East, where, in the wake of President Obama's Cairo speech, the victory of the March 14th Coalition in Lebanon, and the return of Senator George Mitchell to the region, some "brave" souls are allowing themselves to feel a bit hopeful. I say "brave" because, while there is widespread admiration for Barack Obama and appreciation for his spoken word, daring to have confidence in any U.S. president or to believe that peace may be possible requires a "leap of faith."
Questions abound. One, in particular, that I was repeatedly asked, was made up of four deceptively simple words -- "can he do it?" Each time this question was posed, I listened carefully in order to discern precisely what was being asked.
In every instance, of course, the subject, "he," was Barack Obama. His election raised expectations for many across the region, and these have not been let down by his early actions as president. The two verbs, "can" and "do," suggest questions about the capacity, the commitment and the political will of the president.
The question's object, "it," on the other hand, had a variety of meanings. In some cases, "it," referred to the president's stated goal of achieving a "two state solution." In a few instances, my questioners had taken a step back from the goal, instead, wondering whether the president would have the strength to persist in efforts to stop Israeli settlement construction, or to press the Netanyahu government to negotiate on all of the issues requiring resolution in order to achieve a just peace. For a few, the "it" had a domestic U.S. reference, as in, would the president, once confronted by domestic political pressure, be able to resist or would he submit, fearing harm to his presidency?
Interestingly enough, very few of the individuals with whom I spoke questioned this president's intentions or his commitment. Obama's honesty is not in doubt. What prompts concern or skepticism is whether or not he has the strength to overcome political constraints in the U.S. and Israel.
Another reason the question is asked is the fact that, for many, the "two state" goal, itself, is in doubt. The massive settlement enterprise, Israel's sense of entitlement to keep in place the settlements already built and the infrastructure that sustains them, coupled with the violent fanaticism of the settler movement, all combine to raise doubts as to whether the "two state solution" proposed by the president is even possible. Thus, when they ask, "can he do it," they are not questioning him, they are questioning whether his goal is achievable. And again, there are those who do not doubt the president's commitment, but who fear his attention to Middle East peace may end up being short-lived. Because the goal will be so difficult to achieve, they believe that once other issues assert themselves -- e.g. health care, the 2010 elections, or an unexpected crisis -- the president will abandon the Middle East in order to not waste precious time and capital in a vain effort to solve the unsolvable.
In each instance, I responded to the variations on a theme raised by, "can he do it?" with the following observations:
Unlike the last three U.S. presidents to become engaged in Middle East peacemaking, this president has "wind in his sails." He was elected by a comfortable margin; he maintains a high favorability rating; his party controls both houses of Congress; and his goal of stopping settlements and making rapid progress towards peace has strong public support (including Jewish American support) and the support of major leaders in Congress (including important Jewish American Congressman).
Therefore, as long as the president doesn't suffer an embarrassing defeat or a major scandal, he will continue to be in a strong position to lead on Middle East peace.
The president knows that pressure on Israel has worked in the past and can work again. Previous presidents have successfully used pressure to force Israeli concessions. The problem with the efforts of his predecessors has been that they set their goals too low for the political effort they expended. Obama, on the other hand, appears not to simply want a "freeze in settlements" or Israeli attendance at a peace conference, but the achievement, in short order, of a viable "two state solution."
Will he be distracted by other more pressing goals? Since he has framed the achievement of a "two state solution" as being in the national security interests of the United States (an unprecedented formula), it appears that Obama has no intention of backing down, for to do so would suggest putting U.S. national security interests at risk.
There are, however, two imponderables still standing in the way of a firm "yes" being given in answer to the question, "can he do it?" -- and both of these involve questions that Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, must answer.
The first involves the need for the Palestinians to put their political home in order. Should the PA and Hamas forge a national unity government they will strengthen the president's hand, putting still more pressure on the Israeli side to be more accommodating. Should Palestinian national reconciliation not occur it becomes difficult to imagine any forward progress.
The second involves the exact nature of the "it," that is the Palestinian State. There can be no doubt that Netanyahu will, at some point (maybe soon), agree to this goal. But he will do so imposing conditions that make it unrecognizable from legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Palestinians, of course, will not accept this, nor should they. But make no mistake, Palestinians, at some point, will have to define an acceptable end game, one that is both just and achievable. The bottom line is that everyone has a role to play and work to do before the question, "can he do it?" is finally answered.