Netanyahu, Abbas, Obama AP 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting in New York in 2009. Photo by AP
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Where it comes to the Mideast, the craft of peacemaking often bears marked resemblance to the art of war. Especially when it goes wrong.

And where it comes to Israel-Palestine diplomacy in the two years of the Obama administration, little has gone right.

Now, with the White House and State Department having gone back to the worn-thin drawing board, this would seem as good as any to invoke Sun Tzu's ancient The Art of War, to examine how things went awry, and how much point there is in trying, in the coming two years, to set it right.

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.

He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

Barack Obama got to the White House by doing his homework. He is nothing if not assiduous. Once there, he did his homework on health care reform, the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president is, nonetheless, also a human being, and there appears to be a limit to how much homework a person, any person, can do. At the point at which he addressed the issue of Israel and Palestine, it now seems, Barack Obama hit that limit.

On the Mideast, the first area of study should have been the reasonable peacemaking expectations of an Israel governed by a man whose vision of his place in history is powerfully affected – not to say determined – by his implacably hardline, unshakably lucid 100-year-old father.

The next object of interest should have been the probability that Avigdor Lieberman, the former nightclub bouncer determined to bar entry to any peace progress, would be indicted on a range of money laundering charges.

The third required subject should have been a realistic assessment of the chance of a working rapprochement between Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas in Gaza.

A lack of movement in any one of these three elements alone, would have been sufficient to impede Washington's peace overtures. Together, they guaranteed defeat.

But that was just the beginning.

The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.

As the months unfolded, Obama's demand for a freeze on settlement played with brio into the hands of the pro-settlement right.

Had more groundwork been laid, the administration might have concluded, correctly, that the demand for a settlement freeze would have done more harm than good. As it was, the freeze made Washington look bad for no gain and considerable pain. It made a superpower already on the decline, vulnerable to humiliation at the hands of its own ally, in the person of backroom municipal bureaucrats. Witness Vice President Biden.

Had the administration taken more time and care, it might have realized in advance that the freeze as instituted would not be enough to bring the PA back to negotiations. In fact, the freeze, with its attendant the high-profile dispute over continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, may have acted for months as a deal breaker, further delaying talks.

This friction, as well as the PA's long wait before agreeing to re-enter negotiations, served only to strengthen the hands of Obama's pro-settlement, anti-peace process opponents in Israel and in the United States.

Then there was the matter of Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim and Arab world. "The intention was good. The result was destructive," wrote commentator Nahum Barnea, visiting Chicago this month to interview Rahm Emanuel for Yediot Aharonot. Obama sought to turn a new leaf with Arabs and Islamic peoples, but in the wake of the speech, "the Muslims, he failed to gain, and the Israelis, he lost."

According to Barnea, "Obama's path in the twists and turns of the Mideast has been paved with errors." Barnea's list:

Mistake A: Obama was convinced that the Palestinian issue was first on the order of priorities of pro-American Arab leaders, and that a working peace process would win their gratitude. Mistake B: Given Wikileaks, what the Arab leaders really wanted was for the U.S. "to annihilate Iran for them.
Mistake C: Turning the peace process into "a hostage of the settlement freeze." Mistake D. Thinking that Ehud Barak could bend Netanyahu. Mistake E. Making the same error with Israel that he had with the Arabs, that is, "thinking that there was a connection between what [Netanyahu] said in public, and what he did in practice."

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

The most recent, in some ways the worst of the errors, might have been avoided had Obama recognized two of the ways in which Israelis and Palestinians are most alike:

A. They resist pressure as if their very existence depended on it – even in those cases where their existence actually would improve if they gave in to it.

B. They can smell desperation from 6,000 miles away.

Proof: Obama's abortive offer of landmark aid to Israel in exchange for a brief and limited settlement moratorium.

Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.

What could Obama have done differently? One possibility: He could have waged a very determined back-channel campaign to broker an Israeli peace with Syria. In this, he might have been able to leverage both Netanyahu's first-term (1996-1999) contacts with Syria, and Damascus' expressed wish for fresh ties with the West.

Had he succeeded, Iran's influence would have been undermined in Lebanon. The Israeli coalition would almost certainly have undergone a profound reshuffle to build support for a Golan withdrawal, with the incorporation of Kadima paving the way for possible breakthroughs with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas might have then come under pressure from their own constituents to work together and return to negotiations over Palestinian statehood.

In fact, the scenario may yet take place. My colleague Amos Harel noted recently how for months now, senior IDF officers have been recommending resumption of substantive talks with Syria.

Wherever the second half of his term takes the president between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, however he may apply or defy Sun Tzu,

Obama, along with Israel and the Palestinians, can skip at least one passage of The Art of War, the one which all of them know all too well:

There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.