The Economist
July 30, 2009 - 12:00am

THE American president may think he has enough on his plate without worrying about the dog’s dinner simmering away in the corner: the sickly Middle East peace process, with its often nauseous ingredients. This week he has sent an array of colleagues to stir the pot, including his envoy, George Mitchell, who has been in and out of the region; Robert Gates, his secretary of defence; and Jim Jones, his security adviser, who knows the Palestinians from the past. But Mr Obama is the indispensable head chef. However preoccupied, it is he who must decide what to serve up—and when.

He has made an excellent start. His speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was masterly. He persuaded many Arabs and quite a few Palestinians that he was determined to be even-handed. And he squeezed Israel’s new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, into conceding for the first time in public, however grudgingly, that the Palestinians must have a state.

All the same, the outlook is still, on the face of things, exceedingly bleak (see article). Despite his two-state utterance, Mr Netanyahu sounds as obdurate as ever. Several of his advisers assume that the latest diplomacy will fizzle, leaving “fortress Israel” intact. If Mr Netanyahu refuses to stop all settlement-building on the West Bank, as Mr Obama is demanding, the Palestinians may then dig in their heels and refuse to resume talks. Mr Netanyahu gives the impression that he would not much care. His recent insistence that Jerusalem can never be shared makes negotiation even harder.

The immediate outlook on the Palestinian side is no rosier, mainly because of a bitter rift between the secular Fatah party, led by the Palestinians’ hamstrung president, Mahmoud Abbas, who runs the West Bank, and the Islamists of Hamas, who run the Gaza Strip, still under an Israeli blockade. No deal with Israel will stick unless both Palestinian groups endorse it. Yet Hamas’s refusal formally to recognise Israel makes it hard for a Palestinian unity government to emerge.

But all is not lost. The outlines of a deal have long been clear. The border of the two states must run close to that of 1967, with three big Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank near the old line being taken into Israel, while the Palestinians are compensated with land swaps elsewhere. Jerusalem must be shared as the capital both of Israel and Palestine. And the Palestinians should get a symbolic right of return to the lands they lost when Israel was founded in 1948 while clearly accepting that in practice only a few of them will be able to resettle there. Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, came close to a breakthrough on all three issues in talks with Mr Abbas last year, even without much American involvement. And on the Palestinian side, Hamas, despite its dogged ambiguity and divisions of its own, is not all that far from meeting the three conditions that would let it be brought into negotiations.

Even in the brightest circumstances, a full-speed peace process may not resume for months. The Palestinians’ Fatah party is soon to have its first congress in 20 years, perhaps producing a better crop of leaders. And in January the Palestinians are due to have presidential and parliamentary elections that may—or may not—produce a new bunch of interlocutors for the Israelis. Until then, stalemate may prevail.
Just dive in

This is precisely why Mr Obama must soon get still more embroiled. Following his Cairo speech to Muslims, he should address the Israeli people directly, telling them why a Palestinian state is their only long-term guarantee of security. Ideally, he would also persuade Israel’s government to lift its siege of Gaza, now that Hamas has, at least temporarily, stopped firing rockets at Israel. In return the leaders of the Arab world, including Syria (which he is rightly wooing), should be bullied into offering Israel tokens of good faith, such as permission for overflights and reciprocal commercial offices. They could also push much harder to help reconcile the two Palestinian groups—and, by the by, insist that Hamas unambiguously disavows violence and, at least de facto, says it accepts Israel.

Above all though, Mr Obama must soon spell out in detail his vision for the two states—and how it can be achieved. Building on the “parameters” laid down by President Bill Clinton in 2000, along with various other convergent scenarios such as the Arab League’s initiative of 2002 and the unofficial Geneva Accords of 2003, he could delineate the contours of an agreement. It is not just that many Palestinians and Israelis would embrace this basic plan. At the moment politicians on both sides define themselves by the extremism of their most unreasonable opponents. With an authoritative Obama plan, both Israeli and Palestinian voters would have a new measuring stick. Mr Obama has begun to point the way. Now he must add the details and start banging heads together.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017