Obama, The Plan, And The Politics

A final (preemptive) word about my forthcoming article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, appealing to President Obama to present an American plan based on the Olmert-Abbas talks.

Obama knows very well that when Abbas finally met Netanyahu last year, the Palestinian president proposed that he and Netanyahu begin where he (Abbas) and Olmert left off, and that Netanyahu rejected this out of hand. ("No way," Netanyahu said, or so Abbas told me.)

Why then should Obama present a plan that the Israeli government is bound to dismiss? Isn't this setting up the American administration for a diplomatic failure?

No way.

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert's offer and designed (as Olmert's offer was) to be "in the spirit" of the Arab League Initiative of 2002.

Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation's ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

The purpose of presenting a plan now, in other words, would be to signal the Arab street, and the Israeli street, too, that America is committed to a new, coherent Middle East and that it has the world behind it. The plan's gravitas, which may take a year or two to sink in, would derive from its inherent fairness (based, as it is, on Olmert's and Abbas's 36 meetings), not on the predictable resistance of extremists to it. It would start a new political conversation, like the UN Partition resolution of 1947. It would signal all parties that the fate of Palestine is by no means Israel's internal affair, nor is the security of Israel merely a matter for the Israeli military.

Obama needs to understand--and everyone with a pen should encourage him to--that he has the chance to face an election, not as the manager of a stalemated peace process, but rather as the author of a visionary policy. He would not be seen as a timid, failed mediator, like Dennis Ross, but as a bold architect, like George Marshall, universally identified with the only reasonable future the Middle East can expect. After all, Obama has not got Iran to give up its nuclear program, as the rest of the world wants. But he has been justifiably given great credit for organizing what the rest of the world wants.

Moreover, a peace plan of this kind is bound to have a serious impact on Israeli politics, empowering the parties of global Israel (Livni, Labor and the rest) to declare that they alone can preserve relations with Washington and the EU, while the parties of greater Israel (Netanyahu, Lieberman and the rest) will be seen as driving Israel into an impossible isolation. It will give Palestinians a political horizon and may help to preserve the peace and demonstrable economic progress in a volatile West Bank.

Besides, if Obama misses this opportunity, he will almost certainly be running in 2012 with Palestine in chaos, spreading violence in the region, and mobilized Arab youth chanting anti-American slogans. He will be the president who "lost Egypt," rather than the one who gained an international consensus. He does not have much time.