Foreign policy can also purr ahead. Very soon there will be a major nuclear arms accord with Russia, but one whose ratification would quickly be bogged down in the Senate if he will failed to muster the votes to approve healthcare.
The success gives him more room to manoeuvre and compromise with Iran, North Korea and the Taliban. Above all, it should give him the muscle to push the Israelis to deal productively with the Palestinians.
This is a Sisyphean task that has defeated all his predecessors. Since the misconceived Balfour Declaration that gave the Jews a homeland right bang in the middle of someone else’s, peace has been negotiated to death. The British tried again and again to clear up their mess and in the end ran away, literally depositing the keys of the administration building in an early morning stop on the doorstep of the UN mission.
It has consumed many strong politicians: Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger who only managed to achieve some modest changes, James Baker, secretary of state for George H.W. Bush, who tried 20 years ago to browbeat the Israelis into change and Bill Clinton who at the end of his presidency tried to force Yasser Arafat, the president of Palestine, to agree to a deal that would have deprived the exiled Palestinians of the right to return to their confiscated property. If he had done so, he wouldn’t have survived as leader a week. Clinton then compounded his error by spinning a gullible American and foreign press into portraying Arafat as a saboteur.
Only president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made substantial progress when they midwifed the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt which, in return for Egyptian recognition and a commitment not to use violence against Israel, won for Egypt the conquered territory of the Sinai. Can Obama make a new peace on that scale? History would say no. But if it ever can be done, now is the time. Not only is the president strong, but the Palestinian government on the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza, despite all their huffing and puffing and disarray, are in principle willing.
But the Israelis are not ready. After all, it will be seen by at least a quarter of the population – the ultra-religious Jews and their settlers on the Palestinian land – as a failure, one whose ferocity the central government probably would have to use extreme force with if there is a peace agreement. And there’s the rub.
Walter Russell Mead wrote in Foreign Affairs a year ago that Obama “needs to accomplish a Copernican shift in perception: looking at the same sun, moon and planets, it must reconceptualise the relations between them”.
He added this key proviso: “US peace makers have had an Israel-centric approach to the negotiating process. The Obama administration needs to put Palestinian politics and opinion at the centre of its efforts.”
This is the opposite of the Clinton and George W. Bush junior approach. What is there in it for the Israelis? First, the kind of security that they gained from their deal with Egypt where they now enjoy a largely unguarded border.
Second, they avoid becoming an apartheid state as the Palestinian population with its high birthrate begins to outnumber Jews. Sophisticated Israelis know this will be as unstable as was the South African situation and can only end in the Jews playing second fiddle. Already many of the most educated and liberal young people are leaving for North America and Europe, including even Germany and Russia.
Until now, negotiations have always been front-loaded in favour of Israel. The Palestinians made the mistake, a decade ago, of agreeing to recognise Israel’s right to exist in return for Israel agreeing to start talking. (This was despite Israel accounting for 78 per cent of the land of the old British mandate whereas the Palestinians account for only 22 per cent.)
The Americans, if past negotiations are any guide, and the Quartet (the European Union, the UN and Russia, besides the US) will be tempted, as always, to want the Palestinians to put their most valuable cards on the table whilst the Israelis keep the best cards for themselves.
This will not work. It has to be made clear at the onset that the US and the Quartet will only accept negotiations if Israel comes to the table having agreed that if negotiations proceed well, it is prepared to dismantle its settlements, military posts and withdraw from Palestinian territory.
At this stage anything less will fail.