It's hard to count the proposals made to Barack Obama on the appropriate way to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Seasoned State Department officials and ambassadors, journalists and scholars, experts and thinkers have all written books and essays, appeared on television, filed reports and passed on memos.
They all have one thing in common. None of them, for all their profound knowledge, thought that on the day of his inauguration, the incoming president of the United States would have to deal with what's currently going on in Gaza. All the proposal-makers focus on how to reach a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and all of them believe that deeper, more determined involvement by the United States will bring that about.
In discussing past failures in U.S. policy on the issue, the proposal-makers always offer explanations that pertain to the details of each case, as one would expect from diplomats who can't see the forest for the trees. None of them raises the core question - whether the United States is at all capable of resolving complicated national conflicts, or whether the failures we've seen stem from a single, essential issue.
It's very easy to explain the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000 by saying that then-U.S. president Bill Clinton failed to properly prepare the conference. The same goes for lamenting over George W. Bush's failure to put all his weight behind achieving the road map. It is equally easy to see how an accord was missed because of Yasser Arafat's rejectionism - or Ehud Barak's intransigence. The question that remains unasked is whether reaching an agreement was possible at all.
Those who put forward proposals ignore the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not a unique occurrence. Conflicts that share similar characteristics - struggles between national movements that contain elements pertaining to sovereignty, occupation, historic memory and religion - can be observed in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo and Kashmir. In all of them, the United States has tried to offer solutions and has always failed for a simple reason: The parties, or at least one party, did not have the political will to reach an agreement.
It merits mentioning that in the Middle East, the United States is capable of achieving success only in two scenarios. When there is a war, it can end it or temper it. When the parties reach an agreement on their own but still have a few issues that need resolving - as during the visit by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat or when negotiating the Oslo Accords - the United States can push the parties toward a final agreement by using both the carrot and the stick.
In the absence of these two scenarios, and lacking the political will of at least one party, the United States has invariably failed, as could be observed from the Madrid Conference to the Camp David Summit in 2000, the road map and Annapolis - all highly photogenic events that failed to spawn a peace accord.
In all this diplomatic verbosity, the gulf between the two parties is too wide on core issues like Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The Palestinians' inability to form a representative national entity and resolve the differences between Fatah and Hamas through nonviolent means renders negotiations with Israel meaningless. This is the reality with which Obama must contend, and with caution. He needs to invest every effort in finding ways to tone down the conflict and creating mechanisms to build mutual trust.
The Palestinians need assistance in building their institutions. The Israeli presence in the West Bank must be drastically reduced and the expansion of settlements prevented. Gaza needs to be rebuilt - but without rebuilding Hamas' regime there. Should Obama attempt to initiate a dramatic move such as the 2000 Camp David Summit, he will receive some momentary glory and flattering media coverage, but he is destined to fail. He would do better to try to attain what is attainable.
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