As we mark one year into the Obama era, several realities have become painfully clear.
● There are limits to what a U.S. President is willing or able to do. Obama began his term in a rush to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, which he claimed was in "America's national security interests." One year later and he appears to be no longer in a rush. In recent interviews he has analyzed the reasons for the failure to make progress and he pointedly ignored any mentioning of the issue in his State of the Union. What, of course, is distressing is that in addressing the other unrealized priorities he set for his first year (health care, reform of the banking industry, and energy/climate change), the President has made clear his determination to fight "the lobbyists and special interests" standing in the way of change. There are no indications he'll extend this same fighting spirit to Middle East peace. His team, headed by George Mitchell, will continue to work in the field, but for now, with a sluggish economy, still staggeringly high unemployment, and Congressional elections in November, unless an unlikely "breakthrough" is in the offing, Obama will direct his personal energies on issues upper-most on the minds of voters.
● Both the Israeli and Palestinian political situations have become seriously dysfunctional. Obama has alluded to this in recent interviews and at a Town Hall session in Florida, last week. This problem is even more significant than the President suggested. Israeli hardliners and religiously fanatic settlers pose a serious threat not only to Palestinians, but to any Israeli government that tries to uproot West Bank settlements. They are a "civil war in the making" and the danger they pose must be recognized and confronted. While Israel has, at times made a show of taking them on, albeit in a limited way, I fear no coalition Israeli government is ready to wage the fight needed to defeat these elements. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu feels that he has successfully "gamed" the U.S. Administration and has been emboldened by his "victories."
On the Palestinian side, the situation can only be described as distressed. The Palestinian Authority's leadership, already weakened by their 2006 electoral loss, and their deep internal division, has been further hurt by the "limbs" the U.S. walked them out on (a settlement freeze and the initial rejection of the Goldstone Report), only to abandon them in the end. And despite the disasters which Hamas' failed leadership has helped to bring down on their people, they don't appear ready to change direction any time soon.
● Finally there is the demonstrated weakness of the Arab States to use their collective strength to launch any "game changing" diplomatic initiatives. Arabs should not have waited, as they did, for Obama to take office. The period between the 2008 election and the Inauguration provided an excellent opportunity to put forward an Arab initiative to which the new President would have been forced to respond. Instead, it was Israel that attempted to greet the incoming Administration with what they hoped would be their disastrous "game changing" war to eliminate Hamas. And when, at the beginning of his term, Obama challenged the Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab states to make "confidence building" gestures to create an improved environment for peace-making, once again the Arabs had the opportunity to advance their own proposals. And once again, they did not.
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And so here we are one year gone, the wind is out of the President's sails, the situation on the ground is more troubled and complicated, and the Israelis, though facing some international pressure, are feeling that they have regained the upper hand in the U.S. What can be done? The answer to this question is, most certainly, not to wait for "magic" from Obama or Mitchell. There are concrete steps Arabs can take during this period. First and foremost on the agenda should be to follow the Saudi lead to achieve a broader Arab consensus that will both restore some degree of Palestinian unity, pressing and helping them to rebuild their house and support an institution-building effort, like that laid down by Salam Fayyed. It will also be important for the Palestinians to lay out an agenda for confronting the occupation and activating and mobilizing their base in non-violent direct action. The demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and at the Wall demand attention. They can provide the basis for expanded joint Palestinian-Israeli action.
Such a program can help reenergize the Palestinian base, bring the leadership and their constituency into a closer working relationship, and draw international support creating new leverage for Palestinians in future negotiations. If this is augmented by a renewed Arab peace initiative with a strong public relations component, it may provide a constructive "game changer" that could pressure both Israel and US to respond.