Can He Do It?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

I am just returning from the Middle East, where, in the wake of President Obama's Cairo speech, the victory of the March 14th Coalition in Lebanon, and the return of Senator George Mitchell to the region, some "brave" souls are allowing themselves to feel a bit hopeful. I say "brave" because, while there is widespread admiration for Barack Obama and appreciation for his spoken word, daring to have confidence in any US President or to believe that peace may be possible requires a "leap of faith."

Questions abound. One, in particular, that I was repeatedly asked, was made up of four deceptively simple words-"can he do it?" Each time this question was posed, I listened carefully in order to discern precisely what was being asked.

In every instance, of course, the subject, "he" was Barack Obama. His election raised expectations for many across the region, and these have not been let down by his early actions as President. The two verbs, "can" and "do," suggest questions about the capacity, the commitment and the political will of the President.

The question's object, "it," on the other hand, had a variety of meanings. In some cases, "it," referred to the President's stated goal of achieving a "two state solution." In a few instances, my questioners had taken a step back from the goal, instead, wondering whether the President would have the strength to persist in efforts to stop Israeli settlement construction, or to press the Netanyahu government to negotiate on all of the issues requiring resolution in order to achieve a just peace. For a few, the "it" had a domestic US reference, as in, would the President, once confronted by domestic political pressure, be able to resist or would he submit, fearing harm to his Presidency?

Interestingly enough, very few of the individuals with whom I spoke questioned this President's intentions or his commitment. Obama's honesty is not in doubt. What prompts concern or skepticism is whether or not he has the strength to overcome political constraints in the US and Israel.

Another reason the question is asked is the fact that, for many, the "two state" goal, itself, is in doubt. The massive settlement enterprise, Israel's sense of entitlement to keep in place the settlements already built and the infrastructure that sustains them, coupled with the violent fanaticism of the settler movement, all combine to raise doubts as to whether the "two state solution" proposed by the President is even possible. Thus, when they ask, "can he do it," they are not questioning him, they are questioning whether his goal is achievable. And again, there are those who do not doubt the President's commitment, but who fear his attention to Middle East peace may end up being short-lived. Because the goal will be so difficult to achieve, they believe that once other issues assert themselves-e.g. health care, the 2010 elections, or an unexpected crisis-the President will abandon the Middle East in order to not waste precious time and capital in a vain effort to solve the unsolvable.

In each instance, I responded to the variations on a theme raised by, "can he do it?" with the following observations:

Unlike the last three US Presidents to become engaged in Middle East peacemaking, this President has "wind in his sails." He was elected by a comfortable margin; he maintains a high favorability rating; his party controls both houses of Congress; and his goal of stopping settlements and making rapid progress towards peace has strong public support (including Jewish American support) and the support of major leaders in Congress (including important Jewish American Congressman).

Therefore, as long as the President doesn't suffer an embarrassing defeat or a major scandal, he will continue to be in a strong position to lead on Middle East peace.

The President knows that pressure on Israel has worked in the past and can work again. Previous Presidents have successfully used pressure to force Israeli concessions. The problem with the efforts of his predecessors has been that they set their goals too low for the political effort they expended. Obama, on the other hand, appears not to simply want a "freeze in settlements" or Israeli attendance at a peace conference, but the achievement, in short order, of a viable "two state solution."

Will he be distracted by other more pressing goals? Since he has framed the achievement of a "two state solution" as being in the national security interests of the United States (an unprecedented formula), it appears that Obama has no intention of backing down, for to do so would suggest putting US national security interests at risk.

There are, however, two imponderables still standing in the way of a firm "yes" being given in answer to the question, "can he do it?"-and both of these involve questions that Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, must answer.

The first involves the need for the Palestinians to put their political home in order. Should the PA and Hamas forge a national unity government they will strengthen the President's hand, putting still more pressure on the Israeli side to be more accommodating. Should Palestinian national reconciliation not occur it becomes difficult to imagine any forward progress.

The second involves the exact nature of the "it," that is the Palestinian State. There can be no doubt that Netanyahu will, at some point (maybe soon), agree to this goal. But he will do so imposing conditions that make it unrecognizable from legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Palestinians, of course, will not accept this, nor should they. But make no mistake, Palestinians, at some point, will have to define an acceptable end game, one that is both just and achievable. The bottom line is that everyone has a role to play and work to do before the question, "can he do it?" is finally answered.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 19.06.2018

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Added 12.06.2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Added 11.06.2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Added 08.06.2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Added 07.06.2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Added 05.06.2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Added 04.06.2018

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
Added 30.05.2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
Added 30.05.2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
Added 29.05.2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
Added 28.05.2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.
Added 19.05.2018
The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.
Added 16.05.2018
Many knowledgeable people dismiss the prospect of advanced AGI [=Artificial General Intelligence]. Some, ..........,argue that it is impossible for AI to outsmart humanity........Yet other distinguished worry that AGI could pose a serious or even existential threat to humanity. With experts lining up on both sides of the debate, the rest of us should keep an open mind.