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The Virtues of Folding

President Obama has a bad hand in the poker game of Middle East peace. But bluffing or raising the stakes won't improve it.

"She crumbled," ace detective Phillip Marlowe observed in one of the greatest lines in Raymond Chandler's classic 1939 novel The Big Sleep, "like a new bride's pie crust."

And so, come to think of it, has the Obama administration's approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Thirty months in, a self-styled transformative president with big ideas and ambitions as a peacemaker finds himself with no negotiations, no peace process, no relationship with an Israeli prime minister, no traction with Palestinians, and no strategy to achieve a breakthrough.

Indeed, in the wake of the publicly orchestrated extravaganza also known as the Benjamin Netanyahu visit last week, we seem to have speechified ourselves farther away than ever from serious peacemaking. Israelis and Palestinians are running in the opposite direction: Mahmoud Abbas to virtual statehood at the United Nations in September; Netanyahu to the belief that Israel doesn't need a credible strategy to cope with what's coming.

There's great temptation in all of this to saddle the Obama administration with the lion's share of responsibility for this unhappy state of affairs. But that would be wrong, inaccurate, and decidedly unfair.

The president, to be sure -- perhaps with the best intentions and the worst analysis -- has made a complex situation more complicated. But the preponderance of blame surely rests with the locals' incapacity and unwillingness to get real and serious about what it would take to reach an agreement.

Let's be clear: The chance of a conflict-ending agreement (and I choose my words carefully here) that allows Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the four core issues -- borders, Jerusalem, security, and refugees -- appears to be slim to none. Anything short of that (borders first; an interim agreement, etc.) seems beyond the interest or will of the two sides to consider or take seriously. "Been there, done that," seems to govern Palestinian thinking. "I don't want to do that," seems to shape Israel's.

The reasons for this impasse aren't hard to identify.

There are big gaps on the big issues, even on territory (the least hopeless one) as evidenced by the brouhaha over Obama's mention of the June 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. The meaningless but oft-repeated line -- that everyone knows what the solution will be -- only serves to inspire false confidence and trivializes how hard it will be to get there.

Weak leaders, or at least leaders who are prisoners of their political constituencies (not masters of them), compound the problem. Bibi may want to be great, but coalition politics, ideology, and his own fears constrain him.

Abbas too wants legacy; but he's presiding over a national movement that despite newfound virtual unity with Hamas still looks like Noah's Ark: there are two of everything -- security services, charters, visions for Palestine, and patrons. It's a long way from the one gun, one authority, one negotiating position that is the essence of sovereignty -- and indispensable for a conflict-ending accord on the Palestinian side. Nor is the regional situation all that conducive for a breakthrough. (Or at least let's agree that it's an arguable proposition.)

Some believe that the transformative changes now loose in the Arab world have increased the incentives and the pressure for a deal. On one hand, democratic reforms and movements seem to be breaking out all over and the Arabs appear focused more on internal matters than wanting this issue resolved. On the other, Arab public opinion will now be more influential and could become more radicalized. So, let's hurry up and make a deal.

Some, like President Obama, think the situation calls for risk-readiness; others, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, see uncertainty and danger and are risk averse. Even Abbas isn't quite sure. One of the factors behind agreeing to unity with Hamas was the fear that Palestinian leaders who don't deliver will be swept away by their own public.

The Obama administration -- with the best of motives (Arab-Israeli peace is really important to U.S. interests) but lacking a real strategy -- made this situation worse, at least for America.

First came the elusive search for a comprehensive settlements freeze and confidence builders from the Arabs, veritable Missions Impossible. Failure here damaged the president's credibility because Arabs and Israelis said "no" without any cost or consequence. Next came the Sept. 2010 effort to launch actual negotiations and the follow-on attempt to bribe Netanyahu into accepting a 90-day freeze. More damaged credibility. And now, driven by hope and desire for change against the backdrop of the Arab spring and by the fear of a Palestinian U.N. initiative in the fall, President Obama gives a speech designed to recommit himself as peacemaker and to persuade the Europeans (on the eve of his G-8 trip) not to sign on the Palestinian U.N. gambit.

Well, no good (or ill-advised) deed goes unpunished. You pick a fight with Bibi, a guy you need but with whom you have no relationship; you send a message to Palestinians that you're worried about their U.N. plan and encourage them to hang tough in hopes you'll give them more; you make public (and insufficiently explain) an important tactic in the negotiations when there are no negotiations; you upset the pro-Israeli community at home with no purpose; you give the Republicans an issue on which to hammer you; and you annoy members of your own party. And for what? Neither the Palestinians nor the Europeans show much sign of backing away from the U.N. gambit.

That said, having offered up even more bad ideas than the Obama administration has in my 20-plus years of working on this issue, I can't be too hard on the president without practicing a galactic hypocrisy.

Government is about remedy and what's possible; not sitting around telling yourself why you can't make something happen. My colleagues and I convinced then Secretary of State James Baker to chase an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in 1989 when the chances of success were near zero. He wasn't happy about it until Saddam invaded Kuwait, scrambling the region and providing him with real leverage over Arabs and Israelis to finally get serious. The Madrid Conference was the result.

Maybe that's the point. I hate the notion of "ripeness" as it pertains to conflict resolution; it turns Washington into a potted plant waiting for the right moment to act. But it's also pretty compelling metaphor. And right now the options either green or spoiled. Here are some of them:

1. Try quiet diplomacy between now and September. Shop the president's idea on borders with Netanyahu and Abbas; see whether you can't get some traction to preempt a loud and noisy fall at the United Nations. Prospects for success: near zero. Netanyahu's and Abbas's bottom line on swaps don't reconcile, not to mention Jerusalem and refugees.

2. Work with the Palestinians and Israelis on a reasonable U.N. resolution and try to trade it for beginning Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Prospects for success: near zero. The gaps are just too big on core issues.

3. Oppose and veto any U.N. resolution that purports to create a Palestinian state outside of negotiations or one that sanctions Israel -- and try to get the Europeans to buy on. Prospects for success: pretty high (minus getting Europe on board). But this will lead to U.S. and Israeli isolation and predictable unhappiness just about everywhere.

4. Park the issue until 2012. Admit to yourself that barring some major move by one of the two sides or a crisis that forces an urgency, this dog just won’t bark now. Try to contain the damage and forestall the violence that may come in the fall. Prospects for success:not great  the Israeli-Palestinian issue won't stand still; no progress will likely mean a shaky status quo and deterioration.

5. Vote for the U.N. initiative on Palestinian statehood. Prospects for success: Hard to imagine, unless the text was so reasonably anodyne and had no operational impact. Even then it would be hard politically to leave the Israelis isolated as a result of a U.N. General Assembly resolution.

6. Put out the Obama plan on all the issues; persuade Arab foreign ministers to appear with the president in the Knesset and the Palestinian Legislative Council to promote it, along with raising billions of dollars to fund the two-state solution. Prospects for success: Near zero. You'd need a president with big balls for this one; it's an extremely high-risk enterprise designed to change the longer-term psychological climate of the conflict, with little expectation of early negotiations and agreement.

But what's the alternative?  An imposed solution? another lecture to the Israelis about how the status quo is unsustainable; a US plan which the Israelis and Palestinians are asked to take or leave or else?

In the end, probably the best thing Obama can do now is not beat himself up and try to keep the game alive. There are things in life that America just can’t fix; for now, this may be one of them. That he doesn’t have a plan or strategy that can work is no reason to embrace ones that won’t and that could make matters even worse. And something may turn up. The idea that to try and fail is somehow better than not trying at all is quintessentially American. It’s one of our most endearing qualities. But it’s a good slogan for a high-school football team -- and it’s not a substitute for the foreign policy of the most consequential nation on earth.

John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images

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