President Obama needs to reengage in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, not because there is an easy solution to the conflict at hand but because the Palestinians and Israelis tend to create new obstacles to a solution when left to themselves for too long.
Consider the Fatah-Hamas agreement of May 4, in which the two feuding Palestinian factions were driven into each other’s arms by President Mahmoud Abbas’s lack of faith in his U.S. ally (as well as the falling out that the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal had with his Syrian sponsor). Similarly, the Palestinian effort to seek international recognition for a state at the United Nations in September is a unilateral move that promises to create uncomfortable choices for the United States, which is on the record favoring a Palestinian state.
On the Israeli side any number of unilateral actions are possible. One member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party, for instance, is advocating extension of Israeli sovereignty over settlement blocs in the West Bank.
But reengaging does not mean that President Obama himself should take resigned Special Envoy George Mitchell’s place. The conflict is too far from resolution to justify his involvement, and in any case it is hard to imagine Obama engaging in diplomatic arm twisting just as he heads into a presidential reelection campaign.
It would be better for Obama to do three things now. First, articulate more clearly U.S. positions on how the key issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians (borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements) might be resolved to show seriousness of purpose.
Second, think seriously about which incentives and disincentives he could bring to bear in a more energetic post-election negotiating effort; the lack of such a strategy has doomed to failure Obama’s efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian arena so far.
And finally, Obama should visit Israel and the Palestinian territories as soon as possible. He should reach out to Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their people in an effort to earn their trust and respect, find sources of leverage, and use his powers of persuasion to shape their debates.