Mideast Peace: Obama and the Endgame

Whether it is better to continue the quest for Mideast peace with small steps, or go for a “grand bargain,” is a question that has been hotly debated for quite some time. Earlier this year, two preeminent experts on the subject, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, offered President Obama their advice about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they repeated the core of their argument in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that was published under the ominous title “The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything.”

Particularly the longer of the two pieces made for rather surprising reading, because Agha and Malley argued that now was not the time to push for a breakthrough to end this decades-old conflict that is widely regarded as the epicenter of the Middle East’s many problems. While the recommendations offered by Agha and Malley remained vague, their analysis seemed to support the case for conflict management that Israel’s new prime minister Netanyahu laid out when he took office shortly after Obama.

But the Obama administration has apparently decided to ignore the advice against another determined push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Pundits and analysts have been speculating already for some time that an ambitious U.S. initiative to pacify the Middle East might be in the works. It was therefore not much of a surprise when media reports about Egyptian President Mubarak’s visit in Washington on Tuesday announced that Obama had promised to “present a rough draft of his Middle East peace plan in September.”

During their meeting, the two presidents reportedly “agreed that time was of the essence in forging an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and a detailed plan with a clear vision of how a final agreement would look was necessary.” According to a widely quoted report in the London-based Arabic-language al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, the American initiative envisaged the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in amended 1967 borders with Jerusalem as a shared capital; Palestinian refugees would be offered compensation, but no right of return to Israel.

Ever since Bill Clinton tried to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the last few months of his presidency, it has frequently been noted that the major outlines of a deal are well known. The most detailed proposal was put forward last year during the Bush-initiated Annapolis talks. Agha and Malley highlight the fact that this Israeli proposal was rejected by the Palestinians even though it was “far more concessive” than what was offered during the Clinton-sponsored negotiations, and they argue that there is “little reason to believe that more tweaking of the accord would have made a difference.”

It obviously remains to be seen how far Obama’s promised Middle East peace plan will resemble the Israeli proposals of last year, but even if there was little “tweaking”, the plan might still get a very different reception if it is presented as having the backing of the US and the international community, including the Arab states.