Peace in the Middle East has been on the Obama administration's mind from the beginning. Two days after his inauguration the president traveled to the State Department to announce the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the administration's approach as "an intensive effort from day one." Here was the plan: Israel would freeze construction in all the settlements and in Jerusalem; Arab states would reach out to Israel in tangible ways visible to their own publics and to Israelis; and the Palestinians would do better at building political institutions, ending incitement against Israel and fighting terror. With these achievements in hand the administration would lead the parties into peace negotiations to be concluded within the president's first term. Nobel Prizes would be the frosting on the cake.
That's not how it turned out, except for the Nobel Prize. As the Obama administration begins its second year in office, its Middle East peace efforts are widely regarded as a shambles. Its initial goals have all been missed. Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab governments have lost confidence in American leadership. The challenge for Year Two will be how to get out of this mess and on to a more positive track-but that will require some candor inside the administration in assessing what went wrong.
From the start the White House-led by the president himself and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel-has pushed hardest for Israeli concessions, a reversal of the standard pattern where the legendary Arabists in the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau criticize Israel while top officials defend her. This time, those at the top-including Mitchell and Clinton-publicly and repeatedly demanded a total Israeli construction freeze. And this time, the experts in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau and in U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East were the voices of caution and realism, for whatever their biases they knew Obama's approach wouldn't work.