The Nobel Peace Prize, presented prospectively — a triumph of hope over inexperience — threatens to become a central metaphor of Barack Obama’s turbocharged political career. He seems fated to be feted for who he is not (George W. Bush) and who he might turn out to be, but not for things he has actually done. This is dangerous stuff, politically.
It almost guarantees disappointment. So the prize presents him with an immediate challenge: How does he go about actually earning it?
The foreign policy that Obama favors, patient diplomacy on a multitude of fronts, requires qualities of wisdom, horse-trading and fortitude that we can’t yet be sure he possesses.
Nor does it lend itself to high drama; it is more often about the slow reduction of tensions, or the creative stalemate that prevents things from getting worse, than about Nixon going to China.
But an opportunity for a grand gesture may be developing in the most unlikely of locales: the Middle East.
Obama has sent a special envoy, George Mitchell, to launch negotiations, but the Mitchell process has moved slowly and seems to be slouching toward catatonia. The Israelis have refused to freeze their illegal West Bank settlement-building; the Arabs have refused to make any gestures toward recognizing Israel’s sovereignty until such a freeze is imposed. Deadlock.
At the same time, though, there is the rarest of Middle East commodities — some actual, tangible good news — beginning to bubble up on the West Bank. The situation there is improving dramatically.
The Israelis and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been cooperating on the removal of checkpoints and other economic impediments; the economy is growing at a 7% clip. U.S. Lieut. General Keith Dayton has supervised the training of an effective Palestinian security force; crime and terrorist acts are down significantly. (On the other hand, Hamas-controlled and Israel-isolated Gaza festers.)
The moment may be at hand for a dramatic U.S. initiative, even from a no-drama President.
“The two sides seem unable to make peace on their own,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser.
“I think it would make a lot of sense for the President to announce what he thinks a Middle East peace plan should look like.” The elements of such a plan are widely known.
Bill Clinton announced a version of it in December 2000, as he was leaving office. Brzezinski cites four major components: a return to 1967 borders, with land swaps enabling Israel to keep many of its existing settlements; no right of return for Palestinians who left, or were forced off, their lands when Israel became a state; Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine; and an international peacekeeping force replacing the Israelis currently patrolling the Jordan River Valley.
(A fifth point, often mentioned, would be international control of the religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.)
“If the President announced such a plan,” Brzezinski says, “he would probably receive the support of almost every country in the world, including most of the Arab states. This would put enormous pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace.”
The notion of putting enormous pressure on the Israelis to do anything has proved problematic for U.S. Presidents over time, however — and Brzezinski’s well-known desire to apply such pressure has made him unpopular among Israel’s noisy neoconservative and Evangelical supporters.
But there are others, including well-known supporters of Israel like David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who think a breakthrough is possible.
Makovsky’s idea is to start with what seems the toughest problem: the Israeli settlements. “It is actually possible to work out a land swap that would satisfy both sides,” he says. “I’ve done the maps: a 4% land swap would do it. Eighty percent of Israeli settlers live on 5% of the West Bank.
You could give the Palestinians some very attractive land in return for those settlements.”
That would leave more than 55,000 Israeli settlers on the wrong side of the wire, but their presence, in Arab cities like Hebron, is a permanent provocation that will have to be removed if there is ever to be any chance for peace.
Makovsky has some real credibility on this subject. He and top Obama adviser Dennis Ross offered a version of this idea in a recent book with a long title. Makovsky then presented the plan to Benjamin Netanyahu over the summer. And? “He was noncommittal,” Makovsky says.
Indeed, if Netanyahu agreed to the land swap, his right-wing coalition would atomize. But he could still form a new government by aligning with the centrist Kadima Party.
And then he would have the chance to be remembered as the man who finally secured Israel’s borders — the sort of achievement that actually might merit a Nobel Prize.