The Case for Putting a Mideast Peace Agreement First

Time's up. Despite the bluster at George W. Bush's Potemkin peace conference in Annapolis one year ago, Israel and the Palestinians will not reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008. Please folks, don't all faint at once from surprise.

Barack Obama will inherit this mess, along with all the others. Very soon, he must decide how quickly to throw his weight behind Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, what to aim for, and how to succeed where so many others have failed.

The answer: Move fast, very fast. Ignore all advice from old diplomatic hands who'll tell you to avoid big, difficult issues and to stick to crisis management and interim accords. Seek a full end-of-conflict agreement. And apply lessons from your electoral campaign: Enforce absolute message discipline in your own team, and employ dramatic public events and rhetoric to restore people's belief that change is possible.

The temptation for delay is obvious. The list of crises facing Obama starts with the economic collapse, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But as he's said, "A president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time."

Immediate, high-profile engagement with Israel and the Palestinians would be the clearest proof to frustrated American allies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that the Bush years of American unilateralism are over. Reaching an agreement would end the tension between American support for Israel and maintaining warm ties with moderate Arab regimes. It would eliminate one of the main causes of anti-Western resentment in the Arab world, reducing the influence both of Iran and of radical Sunni Islamicists.

By acting quickly -- addressing the issue before he formally takes office and perhaps in his inaugural address, and by visiting the region early next year -- Obama can exploit the awe that his election inspires. A small example: The daily Ha'aretz, normally a frighteningly staid newspaper, covered its entire front page on Nov. 4 with a photo of Obama, one hand held high, facing what looked like a pillar of cloud in the distance, as if he were Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The headline, in English, was "Yes We Can." In January, Obama will still be a symbol of transformation. If he waits two or three years, he will be a shopworn president.

An immediate peace effort could affect who Israel chooses as prime minister in its Feb. 17 election. Tzipi Livni, candidate of the ruling Kadima party, has defined the vote as a choice of whether to continue peace talks with the Palestinians. Her main rival, rightist ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, seems satisfied with that definition. A spokeswoman said this week that Netanyahu regards the talks as "mistaken" and that "it's premature to talk about a final peace deal." Netanyahu's proposed focus on "economic peace" is a repackaged version of post-1967 occupation policy -- Palestinians will get a higher standard of living in return for deferring any hopes of independence.

Of course, no U.S. president can suggest a preference in an Israeli election. Then again, as Ha'aretz's military columnist Amir Oren wrote this week, "Israelis do not like leaders who look weak or submissive, especially toward the Arabs. But they like even less leaders who invite a blowup with the U.S. and a steamroller of pressures, economic, diplomatic and military." If Obama makes clear what direction he plans to take, voters can figure out which candidate will do a better job of cultivating relations with Washington.

The main reason for moving quickly, though, is that every wasted day makes a two-state solution more difficult to reach. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has promised his people that diplomacy can bring independence. Delay eats away at his credibility. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements keep growing. Since the Annapolis conference, the number of settlers has risen from 275,000 to 290,000. (That doesn't include Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, for which up-to-date figures aren't available.) The more settlers, the greater the internal crisis that Israel would face in withdrawing.

No one knows when a two-state solution will become impossible -- but the tipping point is approaching. Past that point, as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warns, Palestinians will demand political rights in a single state (Olmert's era will be remembered for the strange gap between his dovish and evermore desperate rhetoric and his failure to stop settlement growth or reach a peace agreement). A binational state would teeter between Bosnian-style communal violence and Belgian-style political paralysis.

For the same reason, Obama's goal has to be a final-status agreement, covering borders, Jerusalem, and the Palestinian refugees. Yes, those are the same issues that foiled the Oslo process and brought collapse at the Camp David summit. But the necessary shape of an agreement has already been drawn in the Clinton parameters of 2000 and the unofficial Geneva accord of 2003. Because both Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem too weak to make the needed concessions, the temptation to put off final status is always there. Soon after Annapolis, for instance, Dennis Ross advised Bush to take "baby steps" rather than expect a full agreement.

Yet the congenital flaw in the Oslo process was exactly this: putting off the hard decisions. An interim agreement was meant to build trust between the sides. Instead, each side tried to predetermine the outcome. Israel built settlements. The Palestinians extended their influence in East Jerusalem. When the negotiators arrived at Camp David, trust had pretty much been erased.

Afterward, the net effect of the second Intifada on both sides was to bolster belief that the only way out is political compromise -- and to reduce belief that compromise is possible. Diplomacy that focuses only on the leaders who sit around the table won't solve this.

Obama, therefore, needs to engage in very public diplomacy, to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Bush failed at this as well. (Again, no surprise.) One astute diplomatic observer here of those "sources in Jerusalem" who can't possibly be identified, whom I should actually deny exists, astutely points at Bush's speech before the Knesset last May as marking the death of the Annapolis process. Suitable for delivering before an AIPAC conference, it was a litany of support for hawkish Israeli positions (with a partisan dig at Obama thrown in). Bush missed an opportunity to empathetically present to Israelis the sacrifices needed to reach peace. Palestinians heard a confirmation that the American president would demand nothing of Israel.

The speech, by the way, also confirmed Bush's policy of isolating Hamas. Yet the split between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Abbas' government in the West Bank is one reason that Israelis regard the Annapolis process as farcical: It can't possibly bring an agreement that includes all Palestinians. A viable peace strategy must instead support efforts to reunite the Palestinians under one government, in which Hamas is at least a silent partner to negotiations. A unity deal would have to include tough demands on Hamas to stop violence, but the goal would be co-opting the organization rather than besieging it.

In contrast to Bush, Obama should use a trip to Israel and the West Bank for dramatic pageantry. Speeches are not mere words; they can alter people's perceptions of what is possible and alter their own perception of what they can do. Speaking at the Knesset, and again in Ramallah, Obama will need to create a new story of the conflict, one in which resolution is possible. He will need to tell Israelis and Palestinians that for their children to grow up in peace and freedom, they will have to give up some of their demands and much of their anger.

Bush, I'm told sabotaged his own last-minute diplomacy in another way. While Condoleezza Rice shepherded the process and reprimanded Israel for settlement building, a more hawkish administration official undercut her message in conversations with Jerusalem. Israeli leaders felt they were safe in ignoring Rice's admonitions. If Obama wants to restart the peace process, the drama must not come from administration infighting. Factionalism will be fatal.

Will there be a domestic price for pushing Israelis and Palestinians to make peace? From this distance, I doubt it. All the warnings (or Republican prayers) that Jews would reject Obama proved baseless. J Street, the new pro-peace Israel lobby, turned out to be remarkably successful in raising money for congressional candidates -- providing more evidence that hawkish pro-Israel spokesmen don't represent their supposed constituency.

Reaching a two-state solution will make Israel more secure, give Palestinians independence, and sharply boost American standing in the Middle East. The best way to get there is to act immediately and to aim high.

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