Obama and the Three Nos

Obama must convince skeptical public on both sides that peace is possible and that their lives will improve if it is achieved.

President Barack Obama's first encounter with Middle Eastern realities ended in great disappointment. His effort to restart the peace process, which was supposed to offer revivifying hope to the peoples of the region after George W. Bush's diplomatic freeze and war on terror, hit a wall of stubbornness and rejectionism. Instead of Obama's suggestions being received with cries of joy, they were answered with three nos: Israel will not freeze the settlements, the Palestinians will not resume negotiations and the Arab states will not take any steps toward normalization with Israel.

The final blow to Obama's initiative was dealt by the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, who announced in Washington last week that first, Israel must quit all the territories and a Palestinian state must arise; only then will the Saudis talk about normalization. In other words, don't bother them now with ideas for meetings with Israelis and opening Saudi airspace to El Al planes. Call them after you have gotten Israel out of the territories.

These three nos painted Obama as extremely weak. Not only are the Iranians and North Koreans thumbing their noses at him, but even America's allies, who depend on its generosity and support, are allowing themselves to refuse the president's requests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas really went to town, hemming themselves in with mountains of conditions and red lines. Clearly, the parties do not want to resume negotiations, which they do not believe will avail them in any way. Nor is either under domestic pressure to return to the negotiating table: Both Israelis and Palestinians have had their fill of false hopes.

The diplomatic failure caused Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, to grant an interview to The New York Times in an effort to salvage his honor. In private, the Saudis are much more open and flexible, he declared, and the Saudi foreign minister's aggressive statements in front of the cameras bear no relationship to what he says behind closed doors. Just wait and see.

Here is some advice for the honored envoy: Perhaps in the halls of the Senate, or in Northern Ireland, what people say behind closed doors is important. But here in the Middle East, all that matters is what people say openly and publicly. Only what leaders are prepared to defend in public, to their countrymen and their rivals, binds them. Off-the-record talks are meant to curry favor and build trust, but they have no practical significance whatsoever. When the cameras are off, everyone wants peace and is ready to make endless concessions. But when the lights come up, the old, hard-line positions reappear.

So what can be done? Obama is hungry for a foreign policy success, and there is no chance that he will give in now. Senior administration officials, like U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, are telling him that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the key to his success in other places as well, like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Middle East is awaiting the unveiling of an "Obama plan" next month. Netanyahu wants him to abandon his dreams of a final-status agreement and make do with "economic peace," alongside moderate growth in the settlements. The Saudis want the U.S. president to present a detailed program for an agreement. And the Europeans want him to give both sides an ultimatum: Reach an agreement within a defined period of time, or an agreement will be imposed.

The administration intends to restart the negotiations, set a target date and have Mitchell provide Netanyahu and Abbas with continuous oversight. Bush sent the parties to talk by themselves and report back to him on the results; Obama plans to have them babysat.

The question is what the mediator's mandate will be. The White House is debating whether the president ought to lay out the principles of an agreement, first and foremost a demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines. Netanyahu hopes and believes this will not happen, and that Obama will make do with procedural guidelines.

But if the president does present detailed principles for a final-status agreement, that in itself will not solve the conflict. It is more important that Obama convince the skeptical public on both sides that a) peace is possible and b) their lives will improve if it is achieved. No less important, his positions must be backed by both sticks and carrots, as well as a willingness to get into confrontations and pay a political price. Nice words will not suffice. And he must find solutions to problems such as what to do with Gaza and how to ease the internal rift in Israel if settlements are evacuated.

But above all, Obama must demonstrate total commitment to the job. If he evinces doubts, or despairs in the face of the parties' stubbornness and rejectionism, his presidency will end up being just another episode in the lengthening series called "The Missed Peace."