Obama was not alone in his belief, of course. The peace-process creed has endured so long because to a large degree it has made sense and accorded with U.S. interests. The question is, does it still? Does the old thinking about peacemaking apply to new realities? Is the Arab-Israeli conflict still the core issue? And after two decades of inflated hopes followed by violence and terror, and now by directionless stagnation, can we still believe that negotiations will deliver?
Sadly, the answers to these questions seem to be all too obvious these days. And Obama's first 15 months as a disciple of the old creed tells you why. In 2009, the president pushed the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Palestinians to get negotiations going and was rebuffed by all three. He later told Time magazine ruefully that "we overestimated our ability to persuade." In March of this year, provoked by the Netanyahu government's incomprehensible announcement of new housing units in East Jerusalem smack in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, Obama pushed the Israelis again, harder this time, though it seems without much of a strategy to put the crisis to good use.
Obama is clearly determined not to take no for an answer. Fresh from his victory on health care, he's King of the World again and in no mood to let the King of Israel frustrate his plans. This willfulness is impressive, and it makes it even more imperative now that he's engaged in the faith to give that old-time religion a fresh look, based not just on what's possible but on what's probable. We don't have the right to abandon hope, but we do have the responsibility to let go of, or at least temper, our illusions.
I can't tell you how many times in the past 20 years, as an intelligence analyst, policy planner, and negotiator, I wrote memos to Very Important People arguing the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue and why the United States needed to fix it. Long before I arrived at the State Department in 1978, my predecessors had made all the same arguments. An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, the power with which the Palestinian issue resonated in the Arab world did take a toll on American prestige and influence. Still, even back then the hand-wringing and dire predictions in my Cassandra-like memos were overstated. I once warned ominously -- and incorrectly -- that we'd have nonstop Palestinian terrorist attacks in the United States if we didn't move on the issue. During those same years, the United States managed to advance all of its core interests in the Middle East: It contained the Soviets; strengthened ties to Israel and such key Arab states as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; maintained access to Arab oil; and yes, even emerged in the years after the October 1973 war as the key broker in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.