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Members of the USIP group, though not discussing the president’s upcoming trip in their book, call for Obama to take steps that will reassert America’s role in leading Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.
William Quandt suggested that based on the group’s research, it is important for the president to make sure he is pursuing Middle East peace because he believes it is a crucial U.S. national security interest. “If our attitude is that we cannot want peace more than the parties, it will not work,” he said. Another lesson Quandt put forth was the need to act quickly instead of waiting for the last months in office, when presidential political power wanes.
According to Kurtzer, while the United States cannot impose an agreement, it can use its diplomatic strength and make clear to both sides that the president is putting his weight behind the issue. “The parties have a way of knowing when America is not serious,” he said. The research found that special envoys, for example, were rarely useful in pushing the sides closer. Progress has come only in cases in which the president and secretary of state showed they care personally, he said. The appointment of John Kerry to run the State Department and his reported interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict could move the U.S. closer to taking the kind of role authors of the USIP report discussed.
The researchers did not agree among themselves regarding the usefulness of “daylight” between Israeli and American positions. Critics of Obama point to his own admission early on in his first term about the need to create some daylight between Washington and Jerusalem in order to maintain an evenhanded appearance and to be able to pressure both sides. For Abrams, Bush’s “no daylight” policy was not only an important show of support to the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the time, it also allowed the administration some leverage on Israel when needed.
One point agreed on by all is that Obama will face greater political obstacles on the domestic front than his predecessors did if he pushes for a peace process that will require pressure on Israel. Republican criticism has grown fiercer and Congress has become less willing to accommodate disagreements with Israel. The research group’s book wonders “whether congressional and public support for Israel has limited administration options and thus changed the very nature of the American role in the peace process.”
“The Republican Party,” said Spiegel, “switched membership and leadership” since the days of George H. W. Bush and now holds the view that “Israel can do no wrong,” a view that he sees as “not helping Israel.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @nathanguttman