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Richard Z. Chesnoff

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Barack Needs Bill to Make an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Posted: 06/29/11 01:20 PM ET

With the election season nearly in full swing, President Obama's campaign fund-raisers have reason to be nervous. The U.S. economy remains deep in the doldrums and there's growing bipartisan criticism in Congress over Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plans -- not to mention his costly and confusing undeclared war mess in Libya.

That's not even mentioning the Mideast's longest festering wound: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama White House, which entered office with grand plans of getting peace talks back on track, has even failed to coax the two sides back to the negotiating table. Obama's irresponsible talk on the 1967 borders seems to have backfired.

Now, real war clouds are beginning to reform, with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah threatening Israel from the north and the Iranian backed Hamas piling up new rockets along Israel's southern coast.

One result here at home according to leading community insiders: Obama's American-Jewish support is slipping.

American Jews have voted primarily Democrat ever since the Roosevelt years; 78% voted for Obama in 2008. But this Democratic President's frequent run-ins with Israeli leadership and the impression among many of Israel's American supporters -- Jews and non-Jews alike -- that Obama is a less than reliable friend of our only true Mideast ally has done little to reassure that support this time around.

With an eye to convincing Israel's American Jewish friends that they can bank on Obama -- and also contribute to his 2012 campaign -- the president spoke last week to a well-heeled group of Democratic donors who billed themselves as Americans in Support of a Strong U.S.-Israel Relationship.

His pitch: That "both the United States and Israel are going to have to look at this new landscape with fresh eyes." That though there may be "tactical disagreements," he was a strong friend of Israel, and if views diverged, it would be over strategy rather than principle.

Do I buy it? No. Obama's problem in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conundrum has a root cause: his inflated view of his own talent to solve hitherto insoluble problems. Perhaps even more egregiously, he seems to have an exaggerated sense of his own depth of understanding of the Middle East, which is simply not borne out by his background or experience. Put bluntly, Obama just doesn't know enough about the Middle East to win Israel's trust, which is crucial to advancing negotiations.

So what can he do now?

If anything is to change, Obama must immediately insist that the Israelis and Palestinians sit down and negotiate face to face without preconditions.

The time may be ripe. That loathsome accord between the Palestinian Authority and terrorist Hamas is on the verge of self-destruction. The Palestinians are beginning to back away from their misguided plot to get the UN to unilaterally recognize an "independent Palestine." And Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly bold in talking publicly about living side by side with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Obama must appoint a peace negotiator who will prove more convincing, more energetic, more inventive and eventually more successful than George Mitchell, who failed badly in his mission.

I propose he call on our 42nd President, Bill Clinton.

Clinton almost succeeded in making peace the last time he tried negotiating between Israelis and Palestinians, in 2000. The deal he worked out was not unlike the one that's been bandied around lately: mutual recognition of two states in the Holy Land, Israeli retreat from the West Bank, a fair exchange of territories that would enable Israel to hold on to many of its borderline settlements. The Israelis agreed and at first, so did Yasser Arafat.

Then he changed his mind.

Let Clinton try again. He has the prestige, the conviction and above all, the understanding of the Middle East that the current White House resident still doesn't.

One source with a line to the White House told me that he proposed Clinton as Mideast negotiator in the early days of the Obama administration. The suggestion, he said, was "blown off" by staffers. There's also no guarantee that Clinton, who is central to the global works of his multi-million-dollar aid foundation, would accept the job.

But if the Obama administration wants to see a real chance for peace between Arabs and Israelis -- and do a better job reassuring anxious Jewish voters at home -- it needs some quick movement. I believe it needs Bill Clinton.