In the coming months, what the parties say will be more important than what they do.
This post is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here.
In addressing the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the second Obama administration, in sharp contrast to the first, enjoys the ironic advantage of exceedingly low expectations. That will make is easier to avoid inflating false hopes whose disappointment haunted all of President Obama's first four years in office.
Although they have carefully evaded a complete rupture in relations, Israelis and Palestinians have hardly held any peace talks, and have instead increasingly indulged in unilateral provocation and retaliation, throughout this period.
So it is unrealistic to expect any early breakthroughs in this impasse. On the contrary; the entire issue will probably have lower priority as compared with Obama's first term, when he made a grand play of focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "from day one" -- only to spend the next four futile years trying just to get back to square one. Other, more urgent Mideast crises in Syria, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere, and the president's own perception of a pressing need for more "nation-building at home," make Palestinians and Israelis pale by comparison. And Israel's election on January 22, plus the time it takes to put a new governing coalition together, will postpone any serious new steps on this problem.
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Nevertheless, it would be wise both to limit the damage of inaction, and to keep some hope alive of future progress toward peace. That means discreetly exploring possible steps toward territorial deals, and supporting peaceful, cooperative "bottom-up" Palestinian Authority (PA) state-building projects. Most urgently, it means preventing the PA's financial bankruptcy or political collapse, encouraging Israel's newly elected government to come up with constructive diplomatic suggestions, and quietly working with both sides to keep the West Bank as eerily calm as it has been despite the stalemate in the peace process and the violent turmoil all around the region.
Right now, both immediate damage limitation and future peace preservation require a relentless U.S. focus on preventing violence. Either a new intifadah or a cutoff of PA security cooperation with Israel must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the PA. And the only trigger for Western "engagement" with Hamas, or PA "unity" with it, should be the eminently reasonable Quartet conditions that have held up remarkably well for the better part of the past decade: recognize Israel, renounce violence, and respect previous international agreements. To do otherwise would be to undercut the one Palestinian partner for peace that has ever emerged, and that remains the best slender, long-term hope of ever resolving this tragic conflict.
But there is also one new, positive approach that would make good sense as a first step for the incoming Obama administration. That is to take very seriously what Palestinians and Israelis say to each other, and what the U.S. says about them -- and try to do something creative about it.
As soon as the Israeli election is over, the U.S. should ask both sides to reiterate their public commitment to the principle of a permanent, peaceful two-state solution to their conflict. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said so on Israeli television, even in the heat of his current electoral campaign, and it would be very useful for him to say it again right after the votes are counted.