08/02/2010 09:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's New Style in the Middle East

This is the first article in a 5-part series on Middle East peace running this week. A new article will appear daily beginning today and culminating on Friday.


The present moment that we find ourselves, both here in the United States and the Middle East, is self-evidently difficult. We wake up every morning with Israel's standing internationally being systematically questioned and its internal politics moving steadily rightward; with Hamas still entrenched in Gaza; with thousands of replacement Hezbollah rockets positioned in southern Lebanon; and all the while Iran continues to pursue a nuclear capability. All this, and a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians moving at a snail's pace, as it has for the past decade.

In spite of these difficulties, however, there are openings and opportunities that all of us who want peace need to understand and act upon. This article, the first of a series of five, lays out what may move peace from the frustrating dream that it is now, to the reality that it sorely needs to become.

Discussed below is the largest change that has taken place recently, and that is the rise to power of Barack Obama himself. Understanding the American President -- and the leader of what should still be considered "the Free World" -- is an imperative beholden to all interested parties. The second article in the series addresses the role of the Arab states in the peace process, while the third article shifts to the issue of Israel's international standing. The fourth delves into Israel's domestic politics, with the series culminating in a fifth article analyzing the role of the Jewish Diaspora on Israel and the peace process.

The present moment, though, is the Obama moment. In general, the American President's unique role and style on the international stage are a sharp departure from his predecessor. This is in some ways a natural outcome. In my many decades in public life, I have seen numerous American Presidents come and go. Each had his own way of doing business, some were better than others, and history has judged -- and will continue to judge -- them in their own right. The one constant, though, has been a commitment to seeing peace brought to the Middle East. In this, Obama is no different. But given the events of the past eleven years, since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, Obama arguably believes that it is high time to try a different approach to peacemaking.

Contrary to many of the rumors and innuendo in circulation, I wholeheartedly believe that Obama views Israel's security as absolute. At the same time, Obama also believes in the benefits -- for all interested parties -- of a Palestinian state, but he also prudently recognizes the risks if this state is not viable or if it becomes just another armed neighbor hostile to Israel's existence. In this way, Obama has continued the necessary work of retraining the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank; of loosening checkpoints and encouraging renewed security coordination with the Israelis; and of increasing economic growth and opportunity under the aegis of Tony Blair and the Quartet. All of this is important, and yet much more needs to be done, including escalating the pace of these and other activities on a wide array of fronts.

The current American President simply does not believe that this conflict is a zero-sum game, with one side's gain the other's loss, and vice versa. He truly believes, as I do, that everyone will be better off once peace is achieved in the Middle East. This is especially true for Israel itself, given the Jewish state's very real demographic difficulties.

The one significant change from the administration of George W. Bush is that Obama doesn't agree reflexively and uncritically with every move made by the Israeli government, both with respect to its dealings with the Palestinians and its internal political conflicts. The American strategy, while committed to Israel's absolute security, is designed to force Jerusalem to address the essential and tougher issues that have been left festering for years.

Based on the past eighteen months, it's clear that Obama's favored approach when dealing with any problem is through engagement and compromise. In his mind, disappointing all sides and frustrating their maximalist demands is not only acceptable, but actually a real sign of progress. We need look no further than the passage of incremental health care and financial reform bills in this country to know that this is true. For the President, this is how unacceptable status quos are broken, and conflicts are resolved.

But you need not just take my word on this. A good exercise for anyone looking to understand our current President is to go back and actually read his past eight "big" speeches -- from the Philadelphia campaign speech on race relations to the recent speech at the University of Michigan on the proper role of government, and including the Notre Dame speech on abortion, the Prague speech on nuclear non-proliferation, the Cairo speech on the Middle East, the Moscow speech on international cooperation, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, and last year's speech at West Point on Afghanistan.

It is remarkable how consistent Obama's underlying message has been. Outreach and dialogue are, according to the President, crucial tools; negotiation, balance, and cooperation should, in most cases, overrule ideological rigidity. Obama believes in the ability of human beings to change things, but he consistently argues that he does not seek a "perfect" utopia, but simply a better and safer world that we can leave for our children and our grandchildren.

As the President elegantly said in Prague, "When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens. When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. We know the path when we choose fear over hope. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy but also a cowardly thing to do. That's how wars begin. That's where human progress ends."

Moreover, it is worth looking at the national security team Obama has put in place, because you can tell a lot about a leader by the advisers with whom he chooses to surround himself. All of the key players, from Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates to Rahm Emanuel, Jim Jones, and David Axelrod, are pragmatic and hardly strident ideologues. They emphasize balance and rationality and process. More importantly, they aren't just a group of "yes people" eager to agree with the President or tell him what they think he wants to hear.

It would therefore behoove all parties interested in Middle East peace to take this new reality into account. George W. Bush is long gone, and with him the idea that "Israel can do no wrong." Obama brings a new approach and, I believe, new challenges but even greater opportunities.

As the President said in Cairo, "the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."