THE BLOG

Obama's Second Term and His Middle East Legacy

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama will be inaugurated for his second term as the 44th president of the United States of America. As this day nears, it seems inevitable that he should be thinking about the legacy that he wants to leave after eight years at the helm of this great country. In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the arc of history has dealt him a clear, binary choice: he can go down in history as the U.S. president who fought for and saved the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or he can go down in history as the president on whose watch the two-state solution was lost, at the cost of the vital interests of both Israel and the United States.

For nearly 20 years, the negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the proverbial frog in the pot of water -- the frog that, as the heat slowly rises, apparently won't realize it is being boiled alive until it's too late.

Pragmatists and peace activists -- often one and the same -- have ceaselessly warned that the frog will eventually die, as successive Israeli governments have steadily turned up the heat, mainly through the expansion of settlements. Such warnings have long been brushed aside by policymakers and pundits who lacked the vision to see what's at stake, failed to find the courage to take a stand, or, in some cases, seemed motivated by sympathies for right-wing Israeli views. They instead took refuge in tired platitudes like "only a peace agreement can stop settlement construction," "there should be no daylight between allies," and, most incredibly, "we can't want peace more than the parties."

Now, in the weeks before President Obama's inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has turned the heat under the pot even higher, with the announcement of thousands of new units in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the decision to forge ahead with the peace-killer that is the settlement of E-1. The day after Obama is sworn in, that heat will be turned up even higher, when Israelis go the polls and in all likelihood vote into office the furthest right-wing, anti-peace, ideological extreme group of Israeli politicians in Israel's history.

In this context, it is now undeniable that the two-state solution is in mortal jeopardy. The water is bubbling: the frog will soon be amphibian stew.

There is still a little time left to turn the heat down or, better yet, off. There is still a chance that resolute, visionary leadership from a second-term Obama Administration -- an administration finally ready to lay out firm terms of reference and hold both Israeli and Palestinian leaders accountable -- could break the malignant cycle of reckless actions and despair and re-open a credible path to a negotiated two-state solution to this conflict.

The other option is to continue along the current, familiar course: settlement expansion and other anti-democratic or anti-peace actions, met with toothless condemnations from the international community. Recriminations against the Palestinians for taking even non-violent actions -- like appealing to the UN -- to try to stop the seemingly inexorable march toward the death of the two-state solution. And of course, growing violence as Hamas and others fight to claim the mantle of the true champions of Palestinian rights.

This is the situation that President Obama confronts as he enters his second term. The water is boiling. If the frog dies, it will take with it the hopes for peaceful, secure future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. It will take with it the viability of Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy. If it dies, vital U.S. national security interests, in the region and beyond, will be endangered.

President Obama has a choice of two options and two potential legacies. He can act decisively and save the two-state solution, or, he can take shelter in well-worn excuses and let it die. As he considers his foreign policy strategy and priorities for the coming term in office, the question he faces with respect to this Middle East challenge is clear-cut: which legacy does he want to leave?

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