Bush’s successor faces Mideast conflicts

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TEL AVIV | The next U.S. president will inherit two live tracks of Arab-Israeli negotiations and may find himself weighing in on internal Palestinian politics as well.

Though experts believe that the global financial crisis will knock the Arab-Israeli conflict down on the new administration’s priority list, both U.S. candidates have promised to continue the elusive search for Middle East peace.

A deadline set by the Bush administration for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord by the end of this year is widely considered to be unachievable. The next president will decide whether to extend the negotiating framework inaugurated by President Bush last year, try something new or put the process on the back burner.

While there has been a lull in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, political conditions for an accord are far from ideal. The Israeli government is in transition, while the Palestinian Authority remains weak and at odds with a breakaway Hamas-led regime in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, there has been only modest progress on confidence-building measures such as relaxing Israeli military restrictions and boosting the Palestinian economy.

Will the new U.S. president choose to invest precious political capital on a diplomatic long shot?

Ignoring the problem risks giving a moral victory to Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian allies, who will point to expanding Israeli settlements and the Israeli separation barrier as evidence that a Palestinian state in the West Bank is an illusion.

“Time is kind of running out. Things are getting worse. We’ve got to do something about the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. On the other hand, he said, “Why would he [the next president] want to get involved with something so hopeless?”

Neither Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain has specified how they would reinvigorate the peace process. Instead, the candidates have offered differing views of the regional consequences of not resolving the conflict which hint at the priority each might place on pushing forward negotiations.

Mr. Obama has spoken more emphatically about the urgency of a resolution, describing the status quo as “unsustainable.” Echoing the views of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Obama has linked resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to improving U.S. standing in the region.

“This constant wound … this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy,” he said in a May interview with the Atlantic magazine. “The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national security interest in solving this.”

In a separate interview with the magazine, Mr. McCain said he doesn’t share that view of the centrality of the dispute.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of many important fronts in the region, he said, and a successful resolution wouldn’t necessarily resolve the problem of Islamic extremism.

“All of us hope [the peace talks] will yield progress toward peace,” Mr. McCain told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in June. “While encouraging this process, we must also ensure that Israelis can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace.”

Before the next president gets a crack at shepherding Arabs and Israelis toward a peace agreement, he may have to address a more immediate crisis: the unresolved rift between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

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