President Obama's two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank was a public relations success, but was short on substance. His message, as welcome as it was in advocating for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, did not provide a road map, and difficulties will drag on for the foreseeable future.
A major problem for the United States is that this issue is a cudgel for Muslims everywhere with which to beat us up in every discussion about anything, or to use in propaganda messages. No matter what the topic, somewhere in there, you will hear, "... and by the way, you always help the Israelis against our Palestinian brothers, no matter how unjustly they're treated."
The issue was a running argument among program officers at the Pentagon when I worked Middle Eastern issues about seven or eight years ago. Would peace in the Middle East promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, or was the settlement a necessary component for Middle East peace: the perfect chicken or egg argument.
Israel needs to face reality. Time militates against it. Muslim populations are growing faster, and miscreants are steadily arming themselves with better munitions. People as desperate as the Palestinians become ever more dangerous as they see themselves with little to lose. An Israel that might be forced to be more repressive merely causes it to be more isolated on the world stage.
A United Nations General Assembly vote last year granting the Palestinian Liberation Organization observer non-voting status in the body showed just how isolated Israel and its American patron are becoming. Only seven out of 190 nations voting joined Israel and the United States in saying no to the proposition. Israel faces condemnation for its actions based on a spectrum that runs from humanitarian interest to frank anti-Semitism.
The United States remains the one nation with credibility enough to broker the potential two-state solution. Those who have not closely studied the situation may not realize the complexity and nuances of succeeding, but that doesn't mean it is impossible. Involvement in discussions may require the participation of a range of nations that have interests, and these include Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran. Guarantees must include Israel's security and Palestinian ability to provide opportunities for all of its citizens. Jerusalem will need a solution that satisfies no one, but provides access for all.
The United States has the means to get tougher with Israel in order to nudge a messy Israeli coalition government to the bargaining table. This would not be pleasant, but if it was doable, it would be in an American president's second term.
In addition, the United States must be clear about who calls the shots when dealing with Iran. The idea that a military response is on the table is pretty much nonsense. Military action short of an invasion is not going to end Iran's nuclear program, unless it results in regime change, and even then, there is no guarantee that the far advanced Iranian nuclear program would be abandoned. As troubling as an Iranian nuclear weapon would be, it is unlikely that it would be as catastrophic as yet another American-involved Middle Eastern/South Asian war.
By the way, where does Syria fit in the picture? We don't really know, because we can't predict who would be in charge in a post-Assad government. U.S. assistance to the rebel faction might be helpful, but there are many questions to be answered. Two of the most immediate involve the consequences for Israel from a Sunni extremist government, and the U.S. and international responses to the potential slaughter of Alawites and other Shia by the Sunni victors.
In short, the jackpot to be had for President Obama's foreign policy legacy, as well as the action that would justify a premature Nobel Peace Prize, would be a major success in the Middle East. This would be most impressive and helpful for the United States if it involved a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue without Israel (or us) getting involved militarily. If we can also make some sense of Syria and the Arab Spring, Obama could rank as one of the great foreign policy presidents of all time.