Like all religions, the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles. Over the last two decades, I wrote them hundreds of times to my bosses in the upper echelons of the State Department and the White House; they were a catechism we all could recite by heart. First, pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region, and achieving it offered the only sure way to protect U.S. interests; second, peace could be achieved, but only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and third, only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring that peace to fruition.A great piece.
As befitting a religious doctrine, there was little nuance. And while not everyone became a convert (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush willfully pursued other Middle East priorities, though each would succumb at one point, if only with initiatives that reflected, to their critics, varying degrees of too little, too late), the exceptions have mostly proved the rule. The iron triangle that drove Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama to accord the Arab-Israeli issue such high priority has turned out to be both durable and bipartisan. Embraced by the high priests of the national security temple, including State Department veterans like myself, intelligence analysts, and most U.S. foreign-policy mandarins outside government, these tenets endured and prospered even while the realities on which they were based had begun to change. If this wasn't the definition of real faith, one wonders what was.
That Obama, burdened by two wars elsewhere and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, came out louder, harder, and faster on the Arab-Israeli issue than any of his predecessors was a remarkable testament to just how enduring that faith had become -- a faith he very publicly proclaimed while personally presiding over the announcement of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy in an orchestrated ceremony at the State Department two days after his swearing-in.
At first, it seemed that Obama, the poster president for America's engagement with the world, had found a cause uniquely suited to his view of diplomacy, one whose importance had been heightened by his predecessor's neglect of the issue and the Arab and Muslim attachment to it. Even before the Gaza war exploded three weeks prior to his inauguration, Obama had been bombarded by experts sagely urging a renewed focus on Middle East peace as a way to regain American prestige and credibility after the trauma of the Bush years. The new president soon hit the Arab media running as a kind of empathizer-in-chief, ratcheting up expectations even as Israelis increasingly found him tone-deaf to their needs.
Obama surrounded himself with key figures, such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who believed deeply in the peace religion. He named as his chief peacemaker Mitchell, a man with real stature and negotiating experience; and his national security advisor is James L. Jones, himself a former Middle East envoy who made the stunning pronouncement last year: "If there was one problem that I would recommend to the president" to solve, "this would be it."
All these veteran leaders were not only believers, but had extra reason to encourage a tougher line toward Israel; they had seen the Benjamin Netanyahu movie before and were determined not to let their chance at Middle East peace end the same way. In his first turn as prime minister in the 1990s, the brash hard-liner Netanyahu had driven Bill Clinton crazy. (I remember being briefed on their first meeting in 1996, after which the president growled: "Who's the fucking superpower here?") Confronted with Netanyahu again, Obama and his team needed no encouragement to talk tough on the growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an issue that experts inside and outside government were clamoring for Obama to raise as the first step in his renewed push for peace.
At the time, it looked to be a magical convergence of leader and moment: The Arab-Israeli issue seemed perfectly suited to Obama's transformational objectives and his transactional style. If Obama wanted to begin "remaking America," why not try to remake the troubled politics of peace, too? After all, this was the engagement president, who believed deeply in the power of negotiations.
But what are the prospect? Well, be sure to RTWT, at the link.
(And here's a hint: "In the spring of 2010 we're nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we're in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again.")
But never to give up, see Barbara Slavin, "U.S. to set deadline for Middle East peace."