Can Obama save the peace even if he can't save his party?
As the president fought to avert his party's defeat in the US midterm elections, peace negotiations he was mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians were put on hold. For a moment there, it almost seemed like that was all that was keeping the two sides from resolving their conflict.
Writing this while voting for the US 2010 midterm elections are still going on, I am going to take the word of the pundits.
It doesn't look like this is going to be a good week for the Democrats. Polls predict that President Barack Obama's party are going to be defeated and even lose their majority in the US Congress.
As if this imminent defeat is not enough, Obama will have yet another (potential) disappointment waiting for him the morning after the November 2nd elections: the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Israel refuses to stop construction in Jews-only settlements in occupied Palestinian land. The Palestinian leadership have threatened to walk out of the talks because of this. But in a common gesture of consideration to the president, the two sides agreed not to take any further drastic measures.
At least while the midterms are going on.
So what happens now on November 3rd?
Commentary after commentary in the local and international press are filled with anticipation.
What will Obama do, when he no longer has to concern himself with the midterm elections (presumably having lost them)?
What in turn will Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas greet the weakened president with?
On November 3
A couple of scenarios have been mooted.
If the Democrats lose their majority in the House of Representatives and/or Senate, the president's ability to maneuver domestic policy through will be compromised. This could make him turn instead to focus on foreign policy where - less encumbered by Congress - he could - as former White House Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller noted - “appear decisive and presidential.”
He could push the Israelis and Palestinians hard towards making greater progress in the peace talks.
This would almost inevitably involve putting pressure on Netanyahu to stop settlement construction and torpedo Israel's first direct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians in a decade.
(Whether he can get Netanyahu to do his bidding though, is another story.)
On the other hand, Obama could also decide not to further threaten his support base by getting tough with Israel and upsetting Jewish voters at home.
What about the Palestinians?
If the talks fail, Arab states say they may consider directly seeking United Nations recognition of Palestinian independence.
Since Obama took office, from his first declaration to the Muslim world last summer to his speech at the United Nations slightly over a year later, the Palestinians have been buoyed from hope to hope.
'America,' he proclaimed, 'will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.'
Last June in Cairo, he commiserated with how Palestinians “suffered in pursuit of a homeland”.
He spoke of those who “wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security”, and others that “endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.”
“America,” he proclaimed, “will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
To the UN in September this year, he talked about drawing on the teachings of Islam, Judaism and Christianity to reach for “an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
In between these lofty words, there has been little progress made.
His biggest achievement so far may have been to sit the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president down in the same room, but the conversations appear hardly to have been productive.
Yes he can, or no, he can't
After the midterm elections, the next chapter of Israeli-Palestinian-direct-peace-talks-under-Obama will open. Many will be watching to see which way the president goes.
He may play peacemaker, or he may not. We may see a breakthrough in the peace process, or we may not. In any case, let's not forget this: the Israeli and Palestinians were fighting before the American president was even born.
So, let's give credit where credit is due.
Should the talks again end in a stalemate, Obama's greatest fault then - even if he was given a Nobel Peace Prize in wild anticipation of what he could achieve - would not be that he failed, but rather that he created colossal expectations with his grandiose words.
The ones that failed would be the politicians, who could have seized the opportunity of a White House that made Israeli-Palestinian peace a top foreign policy goal, and devoted effort, time and capable minds to achieving it.
And once again, the biggest losers would be their constituents - the Israeli and Palestinian people.