Here we go again

Here we go again. Assuming Israel and the US can overcome last-minute obstacles, two weak and problematic leaders from Jerusalem and Ramallah will soon be ushered into yet another renewed peace process by the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu brings with him his own conflicted ideological baggage as well as a hard-line political coalition that will not tolerate significant concessions on his part. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has a stronger grip on the West Bank than he did even a few months ago but does not speak for Gaza. That territory is ruled by a Hamas leadership that, backed by Iran, could use force to torpedo the process at any time. Moreover, last November Abbas turned down a generous peace offer from Ehud Olmert that Netanyahu either cannot or will not match.

So Netanyahu is less attuned to the requirements of peace than Olmert and is theoretically less able to deliver, while Abbas is the same unyielding Abbas, only stronger politically in the West Bank. Plus ca change. . . . The real difference between this emerging process and its precursors is the Obama administration, which is doing two things differently from its predecessors. First, it is focusing on the entire Middle East and taking a uniquely integrative approach to the interaction among its crisis points: Iran, Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, Israel-Arab. And second, it has fastened upon a settlement freeze as a means of leveraging movement more or less simultaneously on a number of fronts, including Israeli-Palestinian talks and Arab confidence-building gestures drawn from the Arab Peace Initiative.

Thus far, progress registered by both of these administration departures is mixed. Iran-US talks may begin in parallel with Israeli-Palestinian talks but seem to enjoy as little prospect of success. The withdrawal from Iraq is problematic and the situation there far from stable. Syria has apparently still not fulfilled enough US requirements to warrant being brought into the process. And the settlement freeze, after draining administration attentions for half a year, is far from comprehensive or satisfying as a starting point for the process, reflecting both Netanyahu’s political limitations and President Barack Obama’s hesitations about pressuring Israel too hard.

Still, barring unforeseen disasters, this process will indeed resume, and soon. The most Netanyahu and Abbas seem in any way capable of achieving in the near term is a partial Israeli withdrawal or an agreement on borders, meaning a new kind of armistice line between Israel and the West Bank that determines the fate of the settlements on both sides and allows a Palestinian state to emerge. Even that would require Netanyahu to reorganize his coalition or initiate new elections and Abbas to effectively ignore Hamas in Gaza. On the other hand, the harder these negotiations become, the more tempting the Syrian track–with its potential regional payoff concerning Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the militant Islamist movements–will look to both Netanyahu and Obama.

Finally, Obama’s current demands from the moderate Arab states represent a significant American gamble with the huge potential represented by the Arab Peace Initiative. Obama wants the Arabs to begin "delivering" on their promise of eventual comprehensive normalization by offering small gestures before there is any movement at all toward peace. Obama is risking his and America’s newly-established prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds in return for an Arab down-payment on normalization as against a murky and obviously incomplete Israeli settlement freeze. Israel will continue building "only" 3,000 settlement units while Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia exchange low-level diplomatic interest sections with Jerusalem and Abbas comes grudgingly to the table.

If indeed this trade-off takes place, Netanyahu will have gotten the better of the deal. Yet we shouldn’t begrudge him: if this encourages his right-wing supporters to contemplate genuine concessions for peace with the Palestinians while galvanizing the Arab world behind Obama’s confrontation with Iran and his needs in Iraq, then the gambit will have succeeded. Certainly, Obama is correct in demanding more flexibility from the Arabs in living up to the promise of the API. But if Netanyahu now digs in and adopts intransigent positions toward the Palestinians, and/or if Arab support for Obama weakens, reflecting the pervading weakness of the entire Arab system, then valuable American and Arab capital will have been wasted and the API will have sustained a serious setback.

Almost everything depends on the Obama administration’s capacity to move this integrated process forward in a forceful and synchronized manner. To that end, Obama has launched successful openings with the Arab and Muslim worlds that have improved relations markedly. Now he has to do the same with Israelis: he has to address us directly, reassure us that he supports our drive for a secure, democratic Jewish state at peace with its neighbors, and then–but only then–tell our government forcefully what he believes its part in the give-and-take of concessions has to be.