It's time for the U.S. to get serious about Mideast peace

If George Mitchell’s peace mission is to have any meaning, the United States will need to begin acting like it has serious interests of its own in a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By Hillary Mann Leverett

One of the most frequently heard and utterly misplaced observations about America's mediating role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy is that "The United States can't want peace more than the parties." In reality, the United States can want peace more than the parties -- and it almost certainly does.

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never drawn the support of more than a narrow majority of either Israelis or Palestinians -- and, much of the time, not even that. Such a solution meets only the minimum needs of each side. Palestinians are supposed to trade their grievances over the refugee issue for an end to the occupation of most of the territory seized by Israel in 1967 -- but not other territories Palestinians consider their historic patrimony. Israelis are supposed to relinquish territory and foreswear any claim to those parts of biblical Israel beyond the country's 1967 borders in return for formal Arab recognition of Israeli statehood. For these reasons, a two-state outcome will never win truly broad and deep political support among Israelis or Palestinians. Given this reality, it is essential that President Obama and his Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, do not repeat the fundamental mistake of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations -- letting domestic political dynamics among (primarily) Israelis and (occasionally) Palestinians define the parameters for U.S. diplomacy.

Indeed, if President Obama wants to move this issue, he has to take ownership of it. This means, first of all, getting everyone to the table who needs to be there -- including Hamas, an organic movement with deep roots and broad reach that speaks for many Palestinians. It also means keeping them at the table, even when, especially in the short-term, Palestinians continue to try to attack Israelis. Inclusion in negotiations cannot work if it is treated as a "reward" that the United States and Israel bestow for "good" behavior -- such an approach incorrectly assumes that the parties want peace at least as much as the United States and, thus, leaves the United States unable to pursue its interests in a vital region through active diplomacy. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama appeared to grasp this fundamental point, but now seems unwilling to follow through where Hamas is concerned, preferring to stand by the Bush administration's thoroughly dysfunctional "conditions" for dealing with Hamas.

Obama will also need to manage Israel's threat perceptions so that Israeli actions do not eviscerate possibilities for diplomatic progress. Israel frequently overstates the strategic significance of threats to its security -- as with home-made rockets landing in Sderot. At the same time, Israel commonly understates or ignores the destructive impact of its own actions, whether in the form of ongoing settlement activity or grossly disproportionate exercises of military force.

In his first comments on the Middle East following his inauguration, Obama said: "Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats" (emphasis added). We can only hope that the inclusion of the adjective "legitimate" means that the president will be willing to take a significant, even critical, step beyond President Bush and President Clinton's reflexive and uncritical endorsement of anything Israel did in its self-defined pursuit of "security." If President Obama is not willing to do this, then the man who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland will soon be relegated to the long list of failed U.S. envoys who preceded him in the Middle East.

Hillary Mann Leverett, who served as director for Iran and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, is chairman of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy.

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