Obama’s Long Game on Middle East Peace

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his first news conference after Election Day, on Nov. 14, 2012.

With their powers of persuasion fading in Congress, second-term U.S. Presidents often look abroad to cement their legacies. Brokering peace in the Middle East is the holy grail of such global goals. Ronald Reagan tried it. So did Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. George W. Bush might have tried it if the U.S. economy hadn’t been collapsing during his final years in office.

(MORE: What Should the Middle East Expect from Obama’s Second Term?)

President Obama is already planning his legacy-making bid, hoping to succeed where his predecessors failed. Negotiating peace is not going to be a quick process. Obama took the first step last week when he dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Gaza, seeking to build goodwill with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians. But what will be a long game of diplomatic chess has only just begun.

When he took office in 2009, Obama named ex-Senator George Mitchell to be his special envoy to the Middle East. But that investment proved fruitless: Mitchell soon ran into a series of obstacles. Before Obama even took office, Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza. A year later, Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was overshadowed by the construction of new settlements, an issue that evolved into a crisis later in 2010. In early 2011, Mitchell stepped down in frustration, saying negotiations had “hit a brick wall.” A few months later, Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was strained by a contentious visit by the Israeli leader to Washington. And throughout 2012, Netanyahu seemed to favor Obama’s rival, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. By the time Obama was re-elected in November, the two leaders had never seemed further apart.

As violence escalated in Gaza last week, Obama could have exacted some political revenge on Netanyahu, who is up for re-election Jan. 22. But Obama didn’t cozy up to Netanyahu’s rivals, as Netanyahu did to Romney during the U.S. election, briefing the challenger as well as the incumbent. Obama backed without question Israel’s right to defend itself and sent Clinton to broker a deal when needed, risking his own political capital if the cease-fire fails. Netanyahu is likely to get re-elected, so Obama is trying to set aside their differences and start fresh. If the Israeli op-ed pages are any indication, Obama seems to have bought himself some goodwill.

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

Obama also spent time persuading Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to use his sway over Hamas — Morsy’s political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, spawned Hamas years ago — to bring about a cease-fire. This is the first time the two leaders have worked together on regional issues, and for the most part, it was a success. The cease-fire in Gaza is tenuous, and U.S. politicians called on Obama to denounce Morsy for asserting power over Egypt’s courts shortly after Clinton left Cairo. But if Morsy and Obama can develop a working relationship, it would be a significant step toward peace.

Morsy may be even more important than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, because of his party’s influence with Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Europe. When Netanyahu is asked what the biggest obstacle to peace is, he says that he has no negotiating partner. The Palestinians have been split between the Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. One of the results of the Gaza conflict has been to bring the two factions closer than ever. Hamas flags were spotted flying in the West Bank. And Hamas for the first time publicly backed Abbas’ expected move next week to ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an official observer state, an action expected to pass despite harsh criticism from Israel and the U.S. Coming out of the Gaza conflict, Hamas is on stronger political footing. Which is why Morsy is key to getting Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The peace process is a marathon, not a sprint. It will likely be years before Obama turns his full attention to the issue and before all those involved are in a place where they can negotiate. There are other obstacles: Jordan, which borders the West Bank and is home to millions of Palestinian refugees, is becoming increasingly unstable as the Arab Spring spreads. Iran remains a troublemaker, inciting violence through its allies Hamas and Hizballah to Israel’s north in Lebanon. And Syria’s dangerous disintegration needs to be addressed. But if this week has shown anything, it’s Obama intent to revisit Middle East peace in his second term. Maybe he’ll even earn that Nobel Prize.

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