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.
The standoff has the potential to render any peace agreement moot. The strategy of the current U.S. administration to bring Hamas to its knees by propping up Mr. Abbas in the West Bank doesn’t appear to have worked. Though Hamas’ popularity has declined somewhat, the militant group has solidified its rule in Gaza.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have echoed the current administration’s stance on Hamas. When asked about talking to Hamas, Mr. Obama invoked three international conditions: forswearing violence, recognizing Israel and honoring past peace accords.
Mr. McCain has also ruled out engaging Hamas. “A peace process that places faith in terrorists can never end in peace,” he told AIPAC.
It is hard to see how a peace agreement can be reached without a resolution of the internal Palestinian quarrel.
“The problem is that a [Fatah-Hamas] national unity government would preclude the reaching of a permanent status agreement, but seems to be a necessary condition for stability,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a think tank that advises the Israeli government. “The problem with the status quo is that there’s a permanent and constant erosion of the stature of the [Palestinian Authority].”
The prospects for a peace deal with Syria are also cloudy. Indirect talks mediated by Turkey are in a very initial stage and the U.S. has been absent from contacts because of the Bush administration’s disapproval of the Syrian government.
The new administration will have to decide whether to endorse and promote the talks. Opponents say that would effectively mean ending pressure on Syria to reduce its presence in Lebanon.
Mr. McCain’s Middle East talking points say he opposes “unconditional” talks with the Syria, a harder line than the current Israeli administration.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy for the Clinton and first Bush administrations who now advises the Obama campaign, said Mr. Obama as president would reach out to Syria but only after preparation - similar to Mr. Obama’s policy toward Iran.
A former Israeli diplomat who conducted back-channel talks with Syrians expressed hope that both U.S. candidates would break with what he called the Bush administration’s “black and white” view of Damascus.
“Once you paint [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in gray, you can start talking to him,” Alon Liel said.