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Been There, Done That

Jackson Diehl notices that President Obama has recycled more than President George W. Bush’s Middle East messenger:

[George] Mitchell’s recommendations, delivered during the Bush administration’s fourth month in office, will sound familiar, too. He called for a cease-fire, followed by a series of confidence-building measures. The aim was to restore a climate in which peace talks could succeed. Palestinian authorities were supposed to reform their security forces and stop terrorist attacks against Israel; Israel was asked to freeze all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. “Expansion of settlements undermines Palestinians’ confidence in Israel’s willingness to negotiate . . . a viable Palestinian state,” Mitchell and former senator Warren Rudman declared in an op-ed published in The Post.

. . .

The problem, of course, is that the Mitchell plan of 2001 was a flop. Formally endorsed by all sides, endlessly discussed for more than a year, it was eventually folded into Bush’s “road map” scheme of 2002 — which, in turn, also went nowhere. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat repeatedly promised but never delivered action by the security forces to end Palestinian attacks. The new Israeli prime minister — Ariel Sharon — rejected the freeze on settlements. Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, made no effort to overcome Sharon’s resistance, and they cut off all contact with Arafat after he was caught trying to import a shipload of weapons.

Now, as Diehl notes, the landscape for “peace” is worse than in 2001 given the rise of Hamas, the division between Israel’s Palestinian “peace partner” into two warring factions, and the lack of desire by Hamas for peace. So why trot out the same rhetoric and the same negotiator?

One possibility is that President Obama understands all this and is simply buying time, giving the Arab world a heaping portion of “hope” (pretty talk about the peace process). Perhaps he is well aware that none of this is going anywhere for the foreseeable future — unless, of course, Hamas can be dismantled as the governing entity of Gaza.

The other possibility is that, as on so many other topics, the Obama team is displaying a combination of arrogance and ignorance. Bush was disengaged. We didn’t try hard enough to bring about peace. Obama is the only President who’s ever been committed to peace in the Middle East. The source of the problem is mutual mistrust. And on it goes — none of it accurate, but all of it earnestly repeated as dogma. It is that sort of talk that leaves you wondering where they’ve been these last eight years. (And Hillary Clinton knows better, right? It seems she of all people knows exactly how hard her husband strove for that elusive peace deal.)

It may be that the Obama team, led by Mitchell, envisions a new twist: they’re going to start ratcheting up the “even-handedness” talk and start pushing Israel around in an effort to achieve those lauded “confidence building” measures. (Ironic, isn’t it, that bullying Israel is supposed to bring about an era of confidence?) We don’t know that to be the case, and Obama’s pro-Israel supporters have much credibility at stake denying that might be what’s in store. But we simply don’t know what else “different” the Obama team has in mind.

At “best,” the Obama team will mimic their predecessors. The Bush administration spent endless time searching for the magic key to unlock Middle East peace. It was a useless effort but their feverish peace-seeking activity was coupled with a deeply-held, often-expressed commitment to Israel’s security. The danger with the Obama group is that we’ll have a continuation of the former and a shortage of the latter.

In the end, the Middle East doesn’t revolve around Americans’ electoral college. Hamas doesn’t care who is in the White House and isn’t going to be charmed by its latest occupant. Israel survived James Baker and will survive George Mitchell, as well. The cycle of war and truce seems destined to continue — unless of course the Obama team can capitalize on the war and figure out how to shove Hamas out of power. That would be change.



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