Washington — As President Obama prepares for his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, he can choose from two books, both just out, to read on the plane ride over. Each is produced by veteran presidential advisors on the Middle East. But each offers a starkly different perspective.
One book, a product of five scholars and former administration officials and six years of research, documents the failure of U.S. peacemaking and scolds all recent administrations for lack of focus in bringing Israel and its Palestinian adversaries closer to resolving their long conflict. The other, by one of former President George W. Bush’s top Middle East advisers, warns precisely against doing too much and overemphasizing the conflict’s importance.
With speculation rife over the possibility that Obama may invest political capital once again in the stymied Middle East peace process, which book resonates more with him could matter a lot.
The White House itself has gone to great lengths to make clear that Obama will not present a new peace initiative during his visit, which will begin on March 20. Indeed, many observers consider the prospects of getting the sides to restart negotiations less likely than ever. But Middle East watchers are debating whether staying on the sidelines is a valid option for this administration, and if not, just how much involvement is too much.
“If we’re serious about being real friends of Israel, it means we have to be serious about peace,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt and co-author of “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011.” ”It is time to give this our best shot.”
But Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s deputy national security adviser in charge of the Middle East, said he does not know of anyone who thinks there’s a chance for a peace agreement in the near future. Abrams, whose book “Tested by Zion” details the Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East, argued against the notion that time is running out. “The window is always closing. How long have we been hearing this? Twenty years?” he asked rhetorically. The two-state solution to the conflict is not about to become impossible, he said, “because there is no better idea.”
Kurtzer’s “The Peace Puzzle,” which opposes Abrams’ lack of urgency, is the result of a research project sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace that tries to draw lessons from more than two decades of American peacemaking attempts in the region. It paints a gloomy picture of missed opportunities and lack of sustained U.S. efforts, which led to what the authors describe as a decline in American diplomatic power.