Could Barack Obama be the American president who makes history by settling the Palestinian/Israel conflict once and for all? He and his closest advisers seem to think so.
And why not? The received wisdom is that the outlines of a settlement have long been apparent: a "two-state solution" similar to what then–Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered then–Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000 and what then–Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
Of course, both Arafat and Abbas refused those offers. What would be different this time? For one: the advent of the 44th president of the United States. Obama has great faith in his powers of persuasion. For another: American presidents have been seen, rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), as favoring Israelis over Palestinians and showing insufficient sensitivity to the concerns of the "Muslim world." From his speech in Cairo last year to his public thumping of Israel this year, Obama has been sending the message that he is cut from different cloth.
But here's the problem: If, in this "peace process," Israel makes all the significant concessions, the result will be two states — but no solution. Hamas is the 800-pound guerrilla in the room. Obama seldom mentions Hamas — a conspicuous omission. The fact, nonetheless, is that Hamas rules Gaza, one of the two main Palestinian territories. Hamas's leaders "resist" Israel's existence on theological grounds. That means that unless they violate their religious convictions, they cannot accept a two-state solution in which one of those states has Jewish leaders. They have to wage war against it, through terrorism or whatever means seem most promising.
Couldn't Israel strike a deal only with Abbas and his more secular Fatah political faction on the West Bank — and then hope that Gazans also will want peace and the benefits that come with it? Sure, but how would Hamas be dislodged from Gaza? It's true that Hamas came to power through an election more than four years ago. And Hamas might be willing to countenance another election — if it's confident of winning. It is impossible to imagine Hamas allowing itself to be defeated at the ballot box. The Hamas view, like that of other Islamists, is that democracy is a bus: If it takes you where you want to go, that's fine, but once you're there, it's time to get off.
Also apparently lost on Obama and his advisers: The West Bank currently has a booming economy thanks in large measure to the fact that Israeli security forces have been working with Palestinian security forces to crack down on both terrorists and criminals. There is no reason to believe that Palestinian security forces are ready to operate effectively on their own — though Abbas cannot be expected to acknowledge that. Nor are other Palestinian institutions mature. Establish a Palestinian state without first establishing the rule of law, guarantees of basic human rights, a relatively clean and efficient civil service, and an end to terrorist incitement in media and mosques, and the result almost surely will be a failed state. Then what? Send American troops in to stop Hamas, al-Qaeda, or Iranian-backed militias from taking over? Ask the Israelis to do the job?
These puzzles have no easy solutions, but consider beginning with this small step: a referendum. Ask the Palestinians flat out: Are you prepared to accept a two-state solution? Are you willing to coexist with a Jewish neighbor? Are you open to compromises in the interest of peace? Or would you rather continue the conflict as long as necessary to defeat and destroy the Israelis? Based on the results, determine what can be achieved and what cannot, at least for now.
It would help, too, for Obama to tell Palestinian leaders that if they continue to refuse even to sit at the same table with Israeli leaders — as they have for more than a year — they should not expect him to wring more and more unilateral concessions out of Israel. Diplomacy 101 teaches that if refusing to negotiate, turning down reasonable offers, and employing terrorism are rewarded, such behaviors will be reinforced — and they will not be directed only at Israelis.
Should Obama ignore all that and move full-throttle to establish a Palestinian state that ends up a failed state, or a terrorist state, or a corrupt and tyrannical state allied with global jihadism, he will have made history — though presumably not the kind of history he and his advisers have been intending.