01/16/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Mr. President: You Can't Ignore the Israeli-Palestinian Issue

As President Obama prepares to be sworn in for his second term, this is the season for pundits to draw up lists of what they think his priorities for the next four years ought to be.

In foreign policy, there are myriad challenges awaiting him, from withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan to handling potential nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. Almost every area of the globe seems to be facing one crisis or another. But it would be a grave mistake for the president, as some analysts have suggested, to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the backburner, try to manage the status quo and hope to avoid major crises.

After two-and-a-half years of neglect by the administration, events on the ground are spiraling out of control. Soon, there may be no status quo left to manage. As John Lennon once sang, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." Obama spent 18 months making plans to be reelected -- but now the hour of decision and action has arrived.

The Israeli election of Jan. 22 seems certain to produce a governing coalition under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that includes two or more extreme right-wing parties vehemently opposed to a two-state solution.

Indeed, Netanyahu's own Likud Party will elect extremists to parliament like Moshe Feiglin, who wants to pay Palestinian families $500,000 each to emigrate and once told The Atlantic Monthly's Jeffrey Goldberg: "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches."

A slightly more slick form of extremism is advocated by Naftali Bennett, the new wunderkind of Israeli politics whose "Bayit Yehudi" (Jewish Home) party has been surging in the polls and may emerge the second or third largest in the new parliament.

Bennett advocates the immediate annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank, the so-called Area C of the Oslo Accords which has remained under IDF control. He would offer Israeli citizenship to the 50,000-odd Palestinians who live there and leave the rest of the Palestinians confined to municipal enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements.

On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are struggling to remain relevant while Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence, continues to grow in stature. Netanyahu's actions of the past few months, including announcing new settlements in geographically sensitive areas around Jerusalem, have further weakened Palestinian moderates. Already, we are seeing more violence in the West Bank and the Israeli media buzzes with talk of a Third Intifada. Abbas feels he has little to gain from negotiations and is likely to step up efforts to isolate Israel in international organizations.

Obama no longer has the luxury of non-engagement in the Middle East. Without firm and decisive action to reignite a meaningful peace process and to push for a swift deal, the two-state option may disappear forever, leaving Israelis and Palestinians alike facing a future of endless conflict in a region already racked with instability.

Obama should rally his Quartet partners -- the EU, the UN and Russia -- and put together a concrete plan and timetable for a solution. He should consider an early trip to the region to get things back on track. Whatever tactics he adopts, the president urgently needs to use political capital and diplomatic muscle to get the parties back to the table.

Everyone knows what an eventual deal will look like, but without U.S. leadership and pressure on both parties it will never get done. Rather than addressing one or two issues, Obama should place a complete package in front of the parties and dare them to accept the challenge and make the compromises necessary to secure an agreement.

Obama and Secretary of State Kerry urgently need to reestablish credibility as honest brokers. Enough pandering to Washington lobbies. Obama knows he won the overwhelming majority of Jewish votes in the last election he will ever face and knows that these voters, like most Americans, support a two-state solution.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would plant an anchor of moderation in the Middle East against the winds of extremism now howling through the region. Without such a deal, there will be scant hope of stabilizing a region that remains of crucial strategic important to the United States.

None of this will be easy -- but being President of the United States is not about doing the easy things and the alternatives are all too scary to contemplate. Miss this chance and it may never recur. Israelis and Palestinians alike could then look forward to decades more of confrontation and bloodshed.