Can Obama Broker Middle East Peace?

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Kate Brooks / Rapport

Khaled Abed Rabu, right, says his daughters and mother were shot by an Israeli soldier. He picks up the jacket of an ambulance worker near their destroyed home

President Barack Obama got off to a good start last week where the Middle East is concerned, using his first full day on the the job to phone four key regional leaders to discuss peacemaking plans, then following that up on Thursday by announcing the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell — widely respected for his work in brokering peace in Northern Ireland and previous mediation efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East.

Yet, as someone who has reported on the countless peace conferences, U.S. peace plans and peace missions by secretaries of state and special envoys since President Ronald Reagan was in office — and also documented the rage and exasperation at America that the issue has caused throughout the Arab world — I have some advice for President Obama: Achieving peace will take more than simply reinvigorating diplomacy, and relinquishing the Bush Administration's preference for the use of force to address the region's problems. To succeed, Obama needs a new Middle East policy, one that genuinely addresses the needs, interests and aspirations of the region itself. (See images of fighting in the Middle East)

Obama hinted at a new approach during his Inaugural Speech, when he frankly acknowledged America's troubled relations with the Middle East and vowed "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and respect." The toughest issues — from the war in Iraq and the rise of radical Islam to authoritarian regimes and Arab-Israeli bloodshed — will be tackled more effectively by a White House willing to hear, respect and accommodate the fair and legitimate perspectives of the people of the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether Obama will deliver on his bold campaign proposal to extend an olive branch to Iran, but such a gesture would offer the potential for the most dramatic diplomatic breakthrough in a relationship that has been a source of tension and instability since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.

Most important, however, a new U.S. Middle East policy needs to change America's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. With all the rhetorical attention U.S. presidents have given the peace process, Obama could be forgiven for assuming that America has long been doing its best against overwhelming odds. But that's not how people in the region see it. A new U.S. policy should be based on reasserting four principles that have been largely ignored:

— the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the region's core problem;
— ending the conflict is an urgent priority for regional and global stability;
— "honest-broker" diplomacy by the U.S. is essential to mediating peace;
— a peace settlement must equitably address Palestinian as well as Israeli needs and interests.

The last time those principles guided U.S. efforts in the Middle East was during the presidecy of George H.W. Bush, who ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and then convened the Madrid peace conference that paved the way for the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each dallied until their final year in office before becoming engaged at all in mediating a final peace settlement, and even then, their efforts were viewed across the Arab world as too biased towards Israel to be effective.

But a growing number of longtime Middle East hands in Washington have begun to press for a new policy in the region. After the downward spiral in regional stability during President George W. Bush's two terms of office, President Obama is being urged to reassess America's approach. A plea for more attention to Arab interests, for example, came last year in a U.S. Institute of Peace study co-authored by Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Kurtzer, who went on to be an Obama campaign advisor, argued that it was vital for the U.S. to live up to the expectation that it be an "honest broker," and urged the next president to "ensure that the administration has expert and experienced diplomats familiar with Arab societies." That should be self-evident, Kurtzer lamented, but it did not always prove to be the case in the Clinton and Bush White Houses.

Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami, meanwhile, makes the case for urgent and decisive U.S. diplomacy because time is running out on the so-called "two-state solution" that has been the basis for serious peace negotiations since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though Arab and Israeli negotiators have come further than ever toward accepting the contours of a comprehensive settlement, Telhami says, clinching the deal is being threatened by continued violence such as the recent Gaza war, the absence of a final agreement after so many years of trying, Israel's expansion of its settlements in the West Bank, and waning Arab confidence in the peace process. "Palestinian elites and some Israelis have begun to lose faith," Telhami says. "Obama is likely to be the last president to have the option of dealing with the two-state solution. If both sides may become locked in conflict for another generation, it will pose significant challenges to American interests."

On the other hand, successfully mediating the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will make it considerably easier for Obama to meet the other challenges he faces in the Middle East. Iraq's future is not directly related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Telhami says, but enhanced U.S. credibility as a peacemaker in Arab public opinion will give Washington crucial diplomatic clout for developing a positive regional environment for peace in Iraq. Likewise, he adds, greatly improved relations with the Arab world will make it easier to gain regional cooperation in confronting Iran's strategic ambitions.

Telhami is the co-author of a recent blueprint for the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations that argues for substantial changes in U.S. policy, including demanding that Israel freeze construction in settlements on land conquered in 1967, and recognizing the "genuine support" enjoyed by the militant Hamas movement among Palestinians. Addressing the flaws of the past 16 years should not be dismissed as a pro-Arab tilt that undermines the interests of Israel, a close U.S. ally. While the last President Bush was generally perceived to have been a strong friend of Israel, Telhami notes, he failed to leverage America's post-9/11 prestige into a successful mediation role that could have left Israel as well as Arab countries more secure. "Everyone is going to support Israel's security," he says. "True support for Israel means engagement on tough issues, having give and take."

The real question, Telhami says, is what is the most effective way to truly support Israel, advance U.S. interests and ultimately promote the cause of peace in the Middle East. If Obama can get the answer right, he may succeed where so many other American presidents have tragically failed.

See TIME's photos of chaos in the Middle East