WASHINGTON – When he entered the White House, Barack Obama declared that his Administration will be characterized by different tones: Without exaggerated zeal, without verbal disputes, and without a forceful attitude against political rivals.
He wanted an Administration that conducts itself in agreeable ways and facilitates dialogue with the toughest enemies in order to resolve conflicts. He wanted reconciliation and appeasement – traits that fully reflect his complex personality; qualities that he drew from the Zen school of thought and that turned him into a level-headed and deep-thinking leader. One who thinks before he speaks.
In a world at a boiling point, with restless leaders traveling across the globe breathless, The American president’s aides refer to him as “Obama no drama.” This is nice when it comes to tightening ties with Japan or Sweden. However, in the Middle East, where the most common phrase is “let’s create a mess,” the American president needs to change his approach and prompt a turning point that will alter the game.
This is precisely the time for Obama to present a bombastic and grandiose move that cannot be ignored. He needs to present his peace plan, whose essence he revealed a few months ago already: A Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital alongside the State of Israel. Israel will be annexing the large settlement blocs, and in exchange it will provide the Palestinians with alternate land.
Obama needs to announce that there will be territorial contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza (he endorsed the plan for a bridge) and that Hamas is a partner. Without Hamas alongside Fatah any deal would be worthless.
A short while after PM Netanyahu arrived in Washington, I spoke with a senior US official engaged in mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. He sounded despaired: With Bibi, with Abbas, and with the tied hands of America, which wishes to undertake a bold move in a place currently lacking in brave leaders.
He said that, just like his boss, he realizes that such process cannot be stimulated without a major constitutive event. For example, the release of Gilad Shalit and Marwan Barhgouti on the same day; for example, a media-covered flight by the secretary of state to Damascus, where she will bring Syrian President Assad aboard her plane and land with him in Jerusalem for a Knesset speech.
2 alternate options
Obama needs to present to all sides in the Middle East with his overall outline: Ending talks on the creation of a Palestinian state within two years and its establishment during his first term in office. He mostly needs to explain to the sides what this comprehensive peace will look like: It’s not only about giving up east Jerusalem; it’s also about Israelis eating hummus near Damascus or going on a jeep tour near Riyadh. He needs to say out loud that there will be simultaneous dialogue with Syria, and later with Arab states and the Muslims world.
After he presents his plan, the sides will have to declare whether they are going forward with him; it needs to be clear who is in favor, who is against, and who is trying to buy time.
The most terrible moment will happen when Obama gives up and says there is no chance anymore. He tried, but did not succeed. This would mean the Palestinians will go with one of two options: Unilaterally declare their state in line with the 1967 borders and elicit recognition, even if partial, by the world. The US may not be the first to do so, but eventually it will recognize such state.
The second Palestinian alternative would be a shift to the contingency plan endorsed by many of them and declare that the two-state vision has failed, and they do not want it anymore – they want one state. They wish to be the equal citizens in one state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
For Israel, this would mark the end of the Jewish State. People who fail to see where this is going suffer from historical and diplomatic blindness. Yet Obama is not like that: A person who managed to win the presidency after half a term in Senate and become the first black president in America’s history is one who can see far.
This is Obama’s moment of truth in the Middle East. This time, he needs to create drama.