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Obama’s big choice in Israel: to engage or not to engage for peace

If the US president opts not to engage for peace, the door on a two-state solution may close forever

President Obama’s decision to visit the Middle East this spring has focused new attention on how hard he intends to work and how much time and political capital he might expend on trying to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Obama can expect to receive a warm welcome both in Jerusalem and Ramallah, despite rocky personal relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The ceremonial aspects of both visits are important in terms of winning over Israeli and Palestinian public opinion to the President’s agenda. But Obama faces a choice: he could make speeches in both cities, lay wreaths at appropriate sites and leave with a warm feeling – or he could use the trip to kick start a sustained, concentrated, focused and determined push to finally end this conflict.

It is essential that President Obama take the second, tougher option. It’s a high risk choice with no guarantee of success – but failure to act could be disastrous not only for the region but for US national security interests as well.

We could get a clue about Obama’s intentions in next week’s State of the Union address. Israeli-Palestinian peace may only get a one or two sentence mention – but those few words could have enormous significance depending on whether the President sticks to well-known bromides or whether he says something slightly more specific.

The probability that a new, more centrist Israeli government will be in place by the time of the visit provides an opening for US diplomacy that has not existed for the past three years. With Obama having won the last election of his life and now relatively immune to right-wing groups that reflexively oppose almost everything he does, now is the time to move forward.

To give this visit real significance, Obama should signal that the visit marks the start of what is certain to be a tough process that may take all four years of his second term with the aim of reaching a peace deal based on a two-state solution. He should also pledge his continued personal involvement to help the parties reach that goal.

Experience has taught us that only US leadership and mediation can bridge the gaps between the parties. Both the Israelis and Palestinians now seem locked in psychological patterns in which they discount the views and claims of the other side as unreasonable. Each side has its own narrative, proclaims its own historic and legalistic rights and dismisses the claims of the other side as illegitimate.

That kind of debate will never bring peace. The trick for Obama and for Secretary of State Kerry will be to bring both sides to a realization that this negotiation is not about proving which of them is more right and which is more wrong (or wronged) but in reaching a compromise to benefit both peoples. It’s not about what each side may have to sacrifice but about what they stand to gain.

If Obama fails to take advantage of the moment, the door on a two-state solution may close forever. Then, Israelis and Palestinians will be locked in an endless conflict and the United States will have to deal with a festering sore in the center of the Middle East that will never heal.

The President seems aware of the challenge and ready to meet it. If he succeeds, it would stand as a towering historic achievement and legacy that would benefit not only Israelis and Palestinians but all of humankind.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.