Monday, May 11, 2009

The ‘57-state solution’

After last year’s presidential election, some voices in the media said that President Obama would excel as an American president by exploiting the momentum of history laid out before him. The way to Obama's possible greatness in the office would lie in his willingness to seize opportunities, to make bold moves, to step outside of the footprints laid before him, to step out on faith and possibly change everything — starting with people’s expectations of what is possible.

Next week, President Obama faces one of those opportunities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first visit to Washington since regaining the leadership of Israel, will meet with President Obama, at the White House sometime in the next week. To say there are high hopes would be a colossal understatement.

“All eyes will be looking to Washington,” King Abdullah of Jordan told The Times Online (UK), in an interview dated Monday. “If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American government that is going to let us all down.”

The King's forecast, which might seem to make him the purveyor of possible doom, the Cassandra of the Hashemite Kingdom, may be the kind of gimlet-eyed pragmatism the Israeli-Palestinian issue has called for.
”If there is procrastination by Israel on the two-state solution or there is no clear American vision for how this is going to play out in 2009, then all the tremendous credibility that Obama has worldwide and in this region will evaporate overnight if nothing comes out in May.

If we delay our peace negotiations, then there’s going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12 to 18 months — as sure as the other conflicts happened.”

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Such statements suggest that the leaders of 57 Muslim majority nations, borrowing from Obama’s playbook of lightning change, may be prepared to attempt to engage on a broad range of solutions, including discussing the two-state solution that has been the third rail, tripwire, minefield and stumbling block of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

For Obama, barely started on his first term in office, the stakes could not be higher. To emerge from meetings with Netanyahu and Muslim leaders with a framework for finally, comprehensively settling generations of bad blood and old scores would establish Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a diplomatic tandem equal to the greatest in our nation’s history.

And more: Obama’s achievement of a comprehensive Middle East peace— the kind of broad stroke our young president has already shown a facility for — would seriously undercut the recruiting tools of terrorists, begin cutting off the air supply of resentment, outrage and ethnic emotionalism that terrorism needs to survive.

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But it’s all gone south before. The shimmering dream of a comprehensive Middle East peace has frustrated administrations past, most notably that of President Clinton, who went at it hammer & tongs with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The offer of a separate Palestinian state awaited Arafat; this was the door he could not, would not step through when the opportunity presented itself in December 2000 and January 2001.

This door of opportunity is one Barack Obama’s clearly ready to walk through. He intends to give a major speech on Muslim-American relations in Egypt in June, the beneficiary of a wave of goodwill from everyday people in leading Arab countries. Reuters reported Sunday on a new Ipsos Poll that found “Obama's popularity in leading Arab countries far outstrips that of the United States, suggesting he could be able to boost goodwill in the region toward his country.”

Obama “currently enjoys widespread optimism among citizens of that region that he will have a positive effect on their own country, the Middle East, the United States and indeed the world,” Ipsos reported in its canvass of 7,000 adults in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

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For King Abdullah, though, the stakes are even higher than the conventional wisdom might suggest. A two-state solution — Israelis in one sovereign nation, Palestinians in another — has long been the Holy Grail of diplomacy.

The king would beg to differ. For him, it’s bigger. And deeper. And wider. And basic to the leadership skills of Obama and Netanyahu, two of the newest world leaders facing a challenge that could eventually reshape nothing less than the map of the Middle East. A carpe diem moment that starts sometime in the next week.

“The critical juncture will be what comes out of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting,” he told The Times.
”We are sick and tired of the process. We are talking about direct negotiations. That is a major point. We are approaching this in a regional context. You could say through the Arab peace proposal. The Americans see this as we do and I think the Europeans. Britain is playing a very vital pro-active role, more than I have ever seen in the ten years of my experience in bringing people together.

What we are talking about is not Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table, but Israelis sitting with Palestinians, Israelis sitting with Syrians, Israelis sitting with Lebanese. And with the Arabs and the Muslim world lined up to open direct negotiations with Israelis at the same time. So it’s the work that needs to be done over the next couple of months that has a regional answer to this — that is not a two-state solution, it is a 57-state solution.

That is the tipping point that shakes up Israeli politicians and the Israeli public. Do you want to stay Fortress Israel for the next ten years? The calamity that that would bring to all of us, including the West? This has become a global problem.”

Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. Netanyahu: © 2009 World Economic Forum. Obama and King Abdullah: Pete Souza/The White House. Clinton, Barak and Arafat: The White House via UPI.

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