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Jonathan Power: After health care vote, Obama is strong enough to put Palestinians first

Last night’s passage of health care reform immediately transformed the perceived weakness of President Barack Obama into a growing strength. He is now master of his own house and can perhaps out-achieve Lyndon Johnson and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s agenda of domestic reforms.

Foreign policy can also purr ahead. Very soon there will be a major nuclear arms accord with Russia, but one whose ratification would have been quickly bogged down in the Senate if Obama had failed to muster the votes to approve health care. It gives him more room to maneuver and compromise with Iran, North Korea, and the Taliban.

Above all, it should give Obama 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 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 to the administration building 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 twenty 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 the Palestinian National Authority, to agree to a deal that would have deprived exiled Palestinians of the right to return to their confiscated property. If Arafat had agreed, he wouldn’t have survived as leader for 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 Advisor, 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, returned to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula.

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, 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 West Bank settlers—as a failure and one whose ferocity the central government probably would have to use extreme force to put down if there is a peace agreement. And there’s the rub.

Walter Russell Mead, in Foreign Affairs a year ago, wrote that Obama “needs to accomplish a Copernican shift in perception: looking at the same sun, moon and planets, it must reconceptualize the relations between them.” He added this key proviso: “U.S. peacemakers 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 approaches.

What’s in it for the Israelis? First, the kind of security that they gained from their deal with Egypt, with whom they now enjoy a largely unguarded border. Second, they avoid becoming an apartheid state as the Palestinian population, with its high birth rate, begins to outnumber Jews. Sophisticated Israelis know this will be as unstable as it was in South Africa, 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—remarkably—Germany and Russia.

Until now, negotiations have always been front-loaded in favor of Israel. The Palestinians made the mistake a decade ago of agreeing to recognize Israel’s right to exist in return for Israel agreeing to start talking. (This was despite Israel accounting for 78 percent of the land of the old British mandate, while Palestine accounted for only 22 percent.)

If past negotiations are any guide, the Americans—along with their three partners in the Quartet (the European Union, the UN, and Russia)—will be tempted, as always, to want the Palestinians to put their most valuable cards on the table whilst the Israelis keep their best cards for themselves.

This will not work. It has to be made clear at the onset that the United States 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 the West Bank.

At this stage, anything less will fail.

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