Akiva Eldar
Haaretz (Opinion)
October 30, 2008 - 8:00pm

One might think that Gerald Ford (of whom it was said that he could not walk and chew gum at the same time) is the leading candidate for president of the United States. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain why the left fears (and the right hopes) that Barack Obama (or perhaps even John McCain) will be up to his neck in the economic crisis for months and will be unavailable for dipping in the Middle Eastern swamp. By that time the Likud will have established a government of refusal, or perhaps a unity government, i.e., a government of paralysis. The traditional Jewish lobby will see to it that Obama will not hassle Benjamin Netanyahu (or perhaps after all the prime minister will be Tzipi Livni) about Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And a savior has come to Zion.

Intensive care for the Israeli-Arab conflict need not necessarily interfere with rescuing the economy; rather, political and security stability in this irritable region could also contribute to soothing the markets. However, the decision to postpone until better days dealing with the regional crisis works to the advantage of those elements that will exploit stasis to ensure the coming days will be worse. "Our" conflict resembles a car in which the transmission offer a choice between driving onward or retreating in reverse. Our leaders have, after all, taught us that a truce enables terror organizations to get organized and arm themselves in advance of the next round.

In the zero-sum game between Fatah and Hamas, any hiatus in the diplomatic talks to advance the end of the occupation strengthens the elements that propose the alternative of violence to obtain the same aim. The decision by the American president to sit on the fence will tear the pants of proponents of a two-state solution.

Obama's slogan, "Change We Need," is especially apt with regard to American policy in the Middle East. The new menu has been waiting since December 2006, for the president who will know how to draw the correct conclusions from the "axis of evil" policy and "the democratization of the Middle East." This is detailed in the report submitted to Congress and the current U.S. president by James Baker (secretary of state and White House chief of staff for George Bush Sr.) and Lee Hamilton, chair of the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee on behalf of the Democrats. The team of experts they headed pointed to a direct connection between the Israeli-Arab conflict and other problems in the Middle East, such as dealing with the regimes in Iran and in Syria. The U.S. cannot achieve its aims in the Middle East without dealing directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict, they said. They recommended taking action to establish a regional framework to support the stabilization of Iraq, which would include the neighboring Arab countries. Another recommendation was that the U.S. find a way to enter into a dialogue with Syria and even with Iran, as they border on Iraq and constitute a necessary factor in stabilizing it. Even though the experts acknowledged the problematics of dialogue with Iran, they note that Afghanistan had cooperated with the United States.

Obama will have at his disposal a very important tool for implementing the recommended change; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has related that after Obama received an explanation of the Arab peace initiative of 2002, he said that it was madness on Israel's part to have missed that opportunity. Indeed, it is hard to think of any move that would isolate Iran and embarrass Hamas and Hezbollah more than a regional peace agreement and two American embassies in Jerusalem, in the western part for Israel and in the eastern part for Palestine. Recently the Arab initiative has found favor among senior elements in Israel, led by the president and by the leaders of Kadima and of Labor. It will not wait forever for an Israeli partner.

The change also must be seen in the makeup of the American team helping to formulate the peace agreements and in an assertive enforcement of old commitments. The recycling of advisers like Dennis Ross is more of the same. His deputy, Aaron Miller, wrote in his most recent book that Ross (recently the president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute) complained that the Israelis see him as the Palestinians' defense attorney. According to Miller, none of the high-ranking American officials who dealt with negotiations has been willing or able to present the Palestinian perspective, much less fight for it.

The new president will be sworn in not long before the citizens of Israel go to the polls. They deserve to know what Middle East policy the new prime minister they are about to elect will encounter when he (or she) comes to visit the White House. This will help them choose the direction of the change that they want at home.


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