Back before I took off for a winter holiday -- and before the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- I was planning to write this column on the behind-the-scenes tussle over whether either Dennis Ross or Daniel Kurtzer will be appointed as special envoy for the Middle East peace process. As Scott MacLeod wrote for Time's Middle East blog, "Ross would represent the past, which is to say the failure of U.S. policy in the region; Kurtzer would represent a change -- a subtle change perhaps, but change nonetheless -- given his frank acknowledgment of what has gone wrong with U.S. policy and a commonsense prescription for getting it right."
Events have largely superseded that tussle as a column topic. However, the current fighting in Gaza is a reminder of the importance of finding a better approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. But thinking about what a better approach would consist of is a reminder that putting the right personnel in place is no substitute for political guts and courage at the top.
As for the fighting itself, perhaps the most egregious thing left out of most of the reporting I've read on the matter in the Western media is the extent to which the conflict is playing out against the backdrop of an Israeli election campaign. Things had been looking bleak for the ruling centrist Kadima-led coalition ever since the failed 2006 war in Lebanon. And unfortunately for the world, the public opinion backlash was a move to the right -- toward Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right Likud Party -- rather than toward the peace camp. Under the circumstances, a successful military campaign in response to Hamas' resumption of sporadic rocket fire was just what the governing coalition needed -- and a posture of restraint with an agreement to negotiate a new cease-fire that wouldn't include such a tight blockade on Gaza was just what they didn't need.
It would be wrong to say that these kinds of political considerations are all that's driving Israeli policy, but it does explain the broad support for a war conducted by a government that sometimes admits it has no clear sense of its own objectives and other times just contradicts itself.
This sort of dynamic is part of the reason that an active American role is vital to obtaining peace. Absent external pressure, the internal logic of politics tends to point toward momentary conflict escalating out of control. But playing that role effectively requires something more than diplomats who understand the situation. It requires political commitment.
Aaron David Miller, a 25-year veteran of U.S. diplomacy in the region, published a fascinating article in the Jan. 12 Newsweek that included his widely quoted revelation that he "can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity -- including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions -- does to the peacemaking process." That is, indeed, a remarkable (and deplorable) fact. But equally interesting was Miller's observation that Bill Clinton was often "privately frustrated with Netanyahu's tough policies" back during Netanyahu's spell as Prime Minister, but Clinton did not "allow those frustrations to surface publicly."
Miller's criticism of Clinton-era policy cuts deep -- not that the administration was too sympathetic to Israeli views but that even when the administration wasn't sympathetic, it didn't want to say so.
That's politics. And it's understandable politics. Most Americans with strong feelings about Israel don't actually have strong feelings about the details of Israeli policy. Had the Israeli government chosen to talk rather than start bombing back in December, Americans would have supported them. Had the Israeli government bombed for a few days and then agreed to a cease-fire, Americans would have supported that. But instead the bombing was followed up by a land invasion, so they supported that instead. And politicians follow a similar lead. As France and Egypt were working on a cease-fire proposal Wednesday, Rep. Steny Hoyer was "scrambling to push out" a nonbinding resolution in support of Israeli policy, hoping to avoid being "out hawked" by House Republicans.
While this sort of politically motivated deference is understandable, it's also incredibly counterproductive. The parties to the conflict aren't really in need of any brilliant new substantive ideas from the United States -- the basic shape of what an agreement would look like is well understood. Nor are our services as mediators really needed -- the Norwegians have proven capable of playing that role when asked, and no doubt others could do the same. What's needed is something that changes the Israeli domestic calculation -- a sense that the nature of the Israel-U.S. relationship will depend, in part, on the nature of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Any administration willing to publicly chastise an Israeli government will inevitably wind up ruffling some feathers and taking political heat for it, but it will almost certainly be for the Israelis' own good. Jimmy Carter's tough-love approach didn't win him any fans among Israel's most strident supporters, but at the end of the day, the resulting Egypt-Israel peace treaty has been enormously beneficial to Israel.
Unfortunately, taking large political risks with relatively little chance of political reward even if you succeed isn't the sort of thing most politicians like to do. But that's exactly what Barack Obama is going to need to do if he wants to make a difference in this long-festering problem that endlessly complicates everything else we want to do in the Middle East.