The ball is in Obama’s court

The new government in Israel does not give priority to Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace agreements. From its standpoint, the economic crisis requires more intensive care, the Iranian threat is real and immediate and is linked to Israel-hatred rather than to the Middle East conflict, and the price of peace is too high. In PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s eyes, full descent from the Golan Heights will endanger Israel while giving up the West Bank is no less dangerous. Hence it is preferable to play for time until the world accepts that these territories remain in our hands.

Since Netanyahu lives in the same world as the rest of us and understands that it wants to witness political progress, he talks about the need for peace, dreams of an economic peace and would be pleased to meet with Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders.

The two additional central office-holders in the new government, Avigdor Lieberman in the delusional appointment of foreign minister and Ehud Barak as minister of defense, will not push Netanyahu into any new diplomatic move. Lieberman opposes concessions on the Golan and talks with the PLO, while Barak believes that if he couldn’t succeed to make peace with Syria and the PLO then no one can.

The tragedy that has visited the Palestinians in recent years generated an increasingly crystallizing reality of two hostile entities. The Gaza Strip is completely ruled by Hamas while the West Bank is ruled partially by the PLO. The Palestinian leadership’s weakness since the death of Arafat and its inability to speak for all Palestinians confines any agreement with it to the West Bank, at least in the near term.

The Syrian leadership wants to reach an agreement. But President Bashar Assad will not sign a pact that his late father would not have signed. He tried to reach such an agreement with Ehud Olmert and will try with Netanyahu–if the new Israeli prime minister is at all interested in returning to the negotiating table to discuss Israel’s northern border.

Were we discussing these three Middle East leaderships vis-a-vis US President George W. Bush, who completed his term of office last January, we would continue to go nowhere and risk the kind of violent outbreak that always emerges when the diplomatic scene is frozen. But the election of President Barack Obama seemingly creates a new situation and raises the hope of change.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Obama did not reach power in order to reinvent the wheel. Rather, he wants to keep the wheel spinning and does not hesitate to use tools created by his predecessors. The Oslo agreements, the Clinton parameters, the roadmap and the Annapolis declaration all form the foundation of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In parallel, the understandings reached in January 2000 at Shepherdstown between Clinton, Barak and Syrian FM Farouq al-Sharaa are in Obama’s eyes the basis of peace between Israel and Syria. And the Arab Peace Initiative is understood by the new American president as a framework of the highest importance for generating strategic change in the region.

Obama believes and speaks like members of the peace camp in the US and the Middle East: the only question is, how determined is he to realize this vision; how high up is it in his order of priorities? Until now we have no answer–only rumors, assessments and hopes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his followers expect Obama to be determined. Their strength derives from the prospect of a diplomatic settlement; to the extent that prospect recedes they are weakened and Hamas gains strength. Netanyahu and Lieberman viewed Obama’s election as a political blow; their primary hope is that alternative issues such as Iran and the Afghanistan-Pakistan complex will distract him from a diplomatic solution. Bashar Assad dearly needs improved relations with the US and understands that they can be generated by peace with Israel.

The coming weeks will be critical, for in their course Obama will meet with central leaders from the region and will then follow up with a visit. If he "buys" Netanyahu’s economic peace or other spurious ideas offered up as alternatives to an intensive diplomatic campaign, then his declarations will become meaningless. If, on the other hand, he demands concrete proposals from his counterparts in the Middle East, if he presents them with a well-formulated concept (such as a return to parallel talks between Israel and Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon in the spirit of those held after the Madrid conference), then he may well accomplish in the Middle East what his predecessors failed to do.

With all due respect to domestic considerations in the countries of our region, the moment an American president speaks out regarding US interests here the Middle East leaders will have to choose between a crisis with the world’s only superpower and acknowledging American demands. Under these circumstances, the ultimate decision appears obvious from the start.