Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Syria
Barack Obama
International Relations

Let’s assume for a second that Barack Obama wins tomorrow’s election.  I’m not going out on a limb with that one.  But what kind of policy can we expect from him regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  That kind of prognostication gets into tougher territory.

But before we start talking about an Obama agenda, we have to examine what happens in Israel.  In the short term, Ehud Olmert will be Israel’s prime minister.  Given Olmert’s seminal interview in Yediot Ahronot in which he essentially conceded the entire progressive analysis of the conflict over the past 40 years, we can assume that Olmert and the Obama administration might achieve substantial progress on issues like negotiations with Syria and perhaps with the Palestinians.  But I don’t think that Israel will be willing to allow Olmert to seal a deal in any of these matters given the election upcoming on February 10th.

What happens on that date is crucial to the future of the entire region.  If Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition, and until recently frontrunner in the polls wins, then it will be a cold day in Hell before peace agreements are signed with either the Syrians or Palestinians.  In addition, we can expect continuing bellicosity towards Iran (and vice versa).  Certainly an Israeli attack against Iran is in the cards along with escalating violence towards the Palestinians.  One should expect Hamas to forgo its six month long truce and return to Qassam and terror attacks.

No matter how deft Obama’s policy is, I don’t see any way he can make progress with the rejectionist Likud in power.  No one should make any mistake that Netanyahu is capable to doing a Sharon and becoming a pragmatic moderate when faced with governing (as opposed to campaigning, which always brings out the worst in Israeli politicians).  Netanyahu is no Sharon.  He is an opportunist and ideologue at the same time, but he is not pragmatic in the way that Sharon was.

But happily there is another scenario that polls have lately confirmed may be possible.  After facing down two Orthodox parties which were shaking her down for large financial incentives to join the governing coalition she was attempting to broker, her popularity has increased substantially.  Current polls show her with a slight edge over Netanyahu.  It should be noted that such polls are extremely volatile in Israel and there are several political lifetimes between now and February 10th.

That being said, if we project that Tzipi Livni wins the election, then the sky’s the limit.  We will have an eminently pragmatic U.S. president and a newly pragmatic Israeli prime minister.  Both are deeply serious politicians who understand that there is a lot riding on their success not just for their respective countries and the region, but the world itself.  While each side may historically not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity (to repurpose an old Abba Eban insult directed at the Palestinians), but I believe it will be different with Obama and Livni.

As everyone and their brother (and sister) can tell you–the outlines of an agreement are in place as sketched out in the Geneva Initiative and the 2002 Saudi peace plan: a return to pre-67 borders with slight territorial adjustments, sharing Jerusalem, financial compensation for Palestinian 1948 refugees, full diplomatic recognition and normalization of relations with Arab nations.

Despite the fact that the outline is known, that will not make it any easier to reach an agreement.  Doing so will require Livni to make much more painful decisions than even Sharon made in evacuating Gaza.  Despite the fact that Israel will likely be able to retain the largest and oldest settlement blocs, there will be much pain both for the settlers and Israel at large at giving up on the dream of Greater Israel.

Extremists among the settlement movement have determined to exact a stiff price for every government action that harms their interest.  The threat of Jewish terror is very real.  In fact, the Shin Bet has just warned that such militants may be planning on political assassinations as one of their tactics of drawing blood in the struggle against a state many of them view as illegitimate. The security chief, Yuval Diskin told the cabinet the following:

“The scope of the conflict will be much larger than it is today and than it was during the disengagement,” Diskin warned. “Our investigation found a very high willingness among this public to use violence…in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process.”

While Diskin did not comment explicitly on the danger of another political assassination, the timing of his warning - just days before the anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination - was not lost on cabinet members.

“They [the settlers] don’t think like us. Their thought is messianic, mystic, satanic and irrational,” Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said, warning of another political assassination.

“What we are seeing today is the result of a deep rift with the faith-based community, and not only in the West Bank,” Diskin said. “Their…slogan is ‘through war, we will win.”

Clearly, Livni is an untested commodity until now. No one knows whether she, like Sharon, will have the intestinal fortitude to face down the extreme nationalist Israeli right. After all, her own political heritage derives from parents who waved the banner as senior leaders of the nationalist right and may even have supported acts of Jewish terror in the struggle for statehood.  It should be added though, that Livni is no ideologue and has freed herself from any adherence to rightist ideology.  She is a centrist and a pragmatist.  But whether she has a vision of where Israel needs to go and how to get there is an open question.

And this is where the skill and persuasive powers of a President Obama will be called for.  He must forge an alliance with Livni that carries both Israeli and American Jewish opinion before it.  He must also sell the deal to both the Palestinians and the Syrians.  The latter, in particular will require a major break with past U.S. policy.  We must bring the Syrian regime back in from the cold to which it was subjected for the eight years of the Bush administration.  Obama must do this not so much because he admires Bashir Assad, but because doing so will likely transform the region.  Peace with Syria opens the possibility of normalization of Israeli relations with Lebanon.  And finally, “turning” Syria will further isolate Iran and bring Syria into a closer relationship with the west.

Regarding Iran, if an Obama administration can destroy the Iran-Syria alliance while at the same time persuading the ayatollahs that he is willing to open a dialogue with them on issues of interest to them (including normalization of relations)–then perhaps a compromise could emerge on Iran’s nuclear research.  I believe that if the Bush administration can broker a deal with North Korea as appears likely from latest developments, then there is no reason Obama couldn’t do the same with Iran.

I think the prevailing notion of Obama administration Middle East policy should be that there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.  Peace must be a permanent and prevailing interest.  And peace IS achievable.

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