It's 2013. Barack Obama has just been re-elected, the Democrats have retained their majority in the Senate. And the American president, freed from political constraints in a second term, decides to take on an issue that stymied him so badly in his first.
"Israeli-Palestinian peace is critically important to our national interests," Obama tells his new secretary of state (Kerry, Rice, Donilon -- take your pick). "If we don't move now, the two-state solution is dead."
"It means taking on Benjamin Netanyahu," the secretary responds.
"I'm ready for that," Obama shoots back. "And besides, it's time to find out whether I really deserve that Nobel."
According to popular legend, an American president, unshackled by the politics of reelection, is more willing and able to do forceful Arab-Israeli diplomacy (read: pressure on Israel) during a second term. Over the years, this notion and its rallying cry ("Wait until after November") has encouraged and sustained the hopes, dreams, and fears (in some cases) of Americans, Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians, assorted Europeans, and anyone else frustrated by the lack of progress and persuaded that domestic politics is the albatross around the president's neck.
But of all the urban legends swirling around the presidency and America's Middle Eastern policy, few are as compelling (or as wrong) as that of the empowered two-term president. Like the belief in the existence of a peace-process tooth fairy, it's more myth than reality, and here's why.
That something has never happened doesn't mean it can't happen. Life's full of uncertainties and surprises. But the fact that the second-term fantasy has never played out makes you wonder about the viability of the whole idea. Why is it that in 50 years of U.S. involvement in the peace process, that fantasy has never been tested, let alone realized?
History tells a different and more grounded tale. Most of the toughest diplomacy, particularly with the Israelis, occurred in a president's first term, not the second.
In 1975, barely a year into his short presidency, the much-underestimated Gerald Ford used very tough diplomacy with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to secure a second Sinai disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Three years later, Jimmy Carter pushed early in his first term on Arab-Israeli diplomacy partly because he believed that the odds against a breakthrough would grow longer if he waited. He was encouraged in this view by his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who reckoned that it was better to have a battle with the pro-Israel community sooner rather than later.
Likewise, the tough diplomacy leading to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, including the denial of housing-loan guarantees to the Shamir government, also occurred during George H.W. Bush's first and only term -- he never got a second one to test the proposition (and no, Israel wasn't the reason -- it was the economy, stupid).
Of all the second-term diplomacy undertaken by various American presidents, none really fits the model of the empowered, tough-minded two-termer.