I’m cautionsly optimistic about Middle East peace. Why?
1. Obama (probably) thinks like me. Obama and his administration are clever and understand foreign affairs. I flatter myself that I am also clever and understand foreign affairs. If two people both understand a problem, they will likely come to the same solution — think of two people solving the same arithmetic problem, for example. I think that achieving peace between Israel and Palestine and the wider Arab world is important to American interests. It follows that Obama may well think the same way.
2. George Mitchell. Obama has appointed Mitchell as his Middle East peace envoy. Mitchell previously achieved peace in Northern Ireland. It’s a good sign that Abe Foxman and Gary Bauer have complained that Mitchell is “fair” and “evenhanded”.
3. Obama is taking personal interest in the peace process:
“The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress,” Mr. Obama said in the Cabinet Room of the White House, according to The Associated Press. “And when I say progress, not just photo ops, but progress that is concrete.”
4. Obama’s interview on al-Arabiya struck the right notes (my emphasis):
On Middle East peace, Mr Obama reiterated his administration’s support for Israel and its security but also suggested Israelis would have to make some tough choices.
“Ultimately we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what is best for them. They are going to have to make some decisions,” he said.
“But I do believe the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”
5. In my opinion, a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for peace is American pressure on Israel to dismantle settlements. Obama probably agrees with me (see 1 above).
None of this means that peace will be achieved or is even achievable. One confounding factor is Hamas. Obama no doubt would prefer Mahmoud Abbas over Hamas as a negotiating partner. One stratagem that Obama may try is to attempt to sideline Hamas. For example, if Abbas is able to create a Palestinian state in negotiations with Obama and Israel, Abbas’s stock will rise and Hamas’s will fall. Obama may be able to use the threat of this to force Hamas to take a moderate line. Hamas may counter with a few strategically-timed rocket attacks on Israel, aimed at derailing the talks. Obama and Abbas might then counter-counter by achieving a Palestinian state in the West Bank only, and leaving Gaza until later.
Of course, Hamas are not the only ones who may attempt to derail the talks. The Israeli government, particularly if Netanyahu is elected Prime Minister, may prefer a strategy of creating “facts on the ground” i.e. settlement building, and may also try to derail the talks by escalating violence. One tactic that Israel may try is assassinating Hamas leaders in the hope that Hamas will reply with rocket attacks so that Israel can use them as an excuse to bomb the shit out of Gaza again. On the other hand, maybe Netanyahu would be a good leader for prospects of peace, on the Nixon-in-China principle.