Ahead of an Obama Panel

The distance between Charlie Rose and a signing ceremony at the Rose Garden can be bridged. Obama will try. And when Netanyahu acts to blow up that bridge, where will Barak be?


Cartoon of Obama watching World Cup on TV

The inquiry committee investigating the events aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marama is of no importance to U.S. President Barack Obama.

It's just an obstacle that he needs to get past so he can meet his obligation and move on to achieve the real goal: his comprehensive Middle East peace plan, which will be presented to the sides and laid before the United Nations between September and November. It will be compiled by a one-man panel: the Obama panel.

Some 10 years ago, there was a panel of inquiry that included one Turkish member (former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel ) which tried to look backward and forward at the same time. It didn't work. The panel, headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, was supposed to determine who was responsible for the outbreak of the Israeli Arab riots in September and October of 2000 that had taken place three weeks earlier. In the months that went by before the panel submitted its report, Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak and Bill and Hillary Clinton vacated the White House for George W. Bush. With its demise, the report bequeathed to the conflict George Mitchell the mediator and his aide Fred Hoff, who are holding talks with Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians.

Barak remembers how, as the Mitchell committee was being established, he was weighing a proposal by the leaders of the defeated Likud, Sharon and Silvan Shalom, to join his cabinet as the finance and interior ministers and save his government from collapsing. On the verge of agreeing, Barak recoiled, in case Yossi Beilin were to resign from the cabinet in protest and condemn him as an enemy of peace.

A decade has gone by, and Barak has become Beilin, with the ability to influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak knows that Netanyahu knows that Obama knows that the resignation of the chairman of the Labor Party from the cabinet would express a lack of confidence in Netanyahu's practical readiness to advance toward peace.

But Barak is one of the boys, not a leader. One of Bibi's boys. He is not a Chaim Weizmann or even an Ezer Weizman, just a Weizmann Shiri. Instead of combining forces with Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to lead a new moderate and sober policy, he is battling the chief of staff.

In four more months, the freeze on construction in the territories ends. Obama could decide to submit his plan before that, or to hold back a little and wait until after the midterm congressional elections. Netanyahu, as is his wont, is trying to outflank him on the right, in an alliance with the Republicans.

The success is ephemeral. Yes, newly elected Massachusetts senator Scott Brown and Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, two possible candidates in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, have recently spoken out in favor of Israel and against Obama on the Mavi Marmara issue, but there is no argument on the diplomatic parameters bequeathed by Bush.

Obama's counter-flanking move against Netanyahu is not political. It is a direct and indirect security review of the Israel Defense Forces' positions, as gleaned from meetings with Ashkenazi, with Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel (who heads the IDF's planning directorate and is in Washington this week ), and with retired senior officers who are familiar with the way the wind is blowing in the General Staff and the Defense Ministry.

Obama has a great advantage over Netanyahu: He is not fighting for survival. Election considerations for 2012 will not necessarily guide his actions, not even when it comes to Iran. Obama is already president; he wants to be a great president, and ultimately - in accordance with his character and his experience and depending on whether the Democrats control the White House and the Senate - perhaps also chief justice. (He wouldn't be the first U.S. president later appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, an honor enjoyed by William Howard Taft. ) Obama has a vision. Netanyahu does not. Let's assume the Iranian threat is removed. What then?

In a lecture in late May, Mitchell said the conflict can be solved and the parameters exist and are known; what's needed mainly is leadership. The Syrian element of the parameters was delivered at the time by President Bashar Assad, in an important interview with Charlie Rose. The supreme priority, Assad said, is a secular Syria. It will insist on the June 5, 1967 border, Israel will insist on security arrangements, and all that's needed is to find a way to bridge the two ideas. The infrastructure will be the Madrid Conference of 1991 (Obama sees George H.W. Bush as a good model for diplomacy ). Assad distinguishes between a contractual peace that will be implemented over time and entails a monitoring mechanism, and real peace - which depends partly on a solution to the Palestinian problem. And he knows that America means not just a president, but also a Congress, one that is attentive to Israel's wishes.

The distance between Charlie Rose and a signing ceremony at the Rose Garden can be bridged. Obama will try. And when Netanyahu acts to blow up that bridge, where will Barak be?