America's peace broker in the Middle East, George Mitchell, has a hot summer ahead. He will shuttle the few miles between the offices of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He's already begun what looks to be a long, niggling process of shuttle diplomacy in which the Israelis and Palestinians will not meet face to face, leaving it to Mitchell to try to reconcile the differences that stand in the way of creating the Palestinian state that the Israelis have agreed to in principle.
If the Obama administration wants to leave any kind of decent mark in history for its handling of the Middle East—pretty poor so far—it should do something right now that would clear the air and save Mitchell the four months he's allocated. It's simple. Just invite the Palestinians to do what the Israelis have done for decades, which is to declare in the language of their own people that both sides have genuine claims to this land, that both sides have the right to live in peace, and that a viable compromise is possible. If the Palestinians were to publicly begin the process of reversing Yasser Arafat's relentless delegitimization of the Israeli connection with this land, emblemized by his dismissal of the notion of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, they would achieve the simultaneous feat of preparing their people for compromise and persuading Israel of its viability. The Palestinian leadership has all along made an honorable peace impossible by falsely stating that the Jews have no legitimate claims to any of the land.
The Israelis are clearly prepared to live with a Palestinian state along their borders. The trouble is precisely that the Palestinians are not. Every day, Fatah (to say nothing of Hamas and Hezbollah) continues to preach Israel's illegitimacy and beat the drums of hate. Jerusalem and Bethlehem provide a lesson in what tolerance means to the Jews and what it means to the Arabs. In Jerusalem, it is only since the Israelis took control of that city that all faiths—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—had safe access to all the holy sites, in living testimony of the principle of freedom of religion. By contrast, in Bethlehem, which is controlled by the Palestinians, Christian cemeteries, churches, and individuals are frequently attacked, provoking an exodus of Christians from the town of Jesus's birth. Fifty years ago, Christians made up 70 percent of Bethlehem's population; today, it is about 15 percent.
Decades of terrorism have left Israelis demoralized about the potential of negotiations. Given the hostility President Obama has shown to Israel from the start, the new smooth talk from the White House won't do it. "The president gets it," said Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, one of 37 anxious Jewish members of Congress who met privately with Obama on May 18. Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey went so far as to say that from a military and intelligence-sharing perspective, the Obama administration is the best U.S. administration Israel has ever had. Hello?
What will make it difficult for the Israelis to be forthcoming in the brokered negotiations with the Palestinians is the widespread concern that this administration, unlike others going back to the Truman years, lacks a basic commitment to Israel, or sympathy for it. It was this sustained U.S. support that made it feasible for the Israelis to offer territorial concessions because they believed that Washington would protect their back.
Today, the Israelis no longer believe that the American commitment to Israel is rock-solid. They have witnessed the erosion of U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations and more recently at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States has taken public positions on the settlement freeze and Jerusalem that enhanced the expectations of the Palestinians, who cannot be less pro-Palestinian than the White House and, therefore, cannot climb down from the positions taken by the U.S. administration.
Even worse, the Israeli government will be more cautious in acceding to U.S. demands, believing that whatever compromises might be struck could be meaningless if Obama gets angry again. The Israelis now have the feeling that the Obama administration just wants a deal signed, without much concern about what happens later.