From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009
Summary: If it hopes to bring peace to the Middle East, the Obama administration must put Palestinian politics and goals first.
Reviving the Middle East peace process is the worst kind of necessary evil for a U.S. administration: at once very necessary and very evil. It is necessary because the festering dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians in a volatile, strategically vital region has broad implications for U.S. interests and because the security of Israel is one of the American public's most enduring international concerns. It is evil because it is costly and difficult. The price of engagement is high, the chances for a solution are mixed at best, and all of the available approaches carry significant political risks. A string of poor policy choices by the Bush administration made a bad situation significantly worse. It inflamed passions. It weakened the position of moderate Israelis and Palestinians alike. And it reduced the U.S. government's credibility as a broker.
Even without the damaging aftermath of eight misspent years, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will not be easily settled. Many people have tried to end it; all have failed. Direct negotiations between Arabs and Jews after World War I foundered. The British tried to square the circle of competing Palestinian and Jewish aspirations from the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration until the ignominious collapse of their mandate in 1948. Since then, the United Nations, the United States, and the international community have struggled with the problem without managing to solve it. No issue in international affairs has taxed the ingenuity of so many leaders or captured so much attention from around the world. Winston Churchill failed to solve it; the "wise men" who built NATO and the Marshall Plan handed it down, still festering, to future generations. Henry Kissinger had to content himself with incremental progress. The Soviet Union crumbled on Ronald Reagan's watch, but the Israeli-Palestinian dispute survived him. Bill Clinton devoted much of his tenure to picking at this Gordian knot. He failed. George W. Bush failed at everything he tried. This is a dispute that deserves respect; old, inflamed, and complex, it does not suffer quick fixes.
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WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.