As Obama prepares to visit Israel and Palestine, the region faces astounding obstacles to a lasting solution.
As President Obama prepares to visit Israel and Palestine later this month, he's facing a set of political and diplomatic impasses that seem virtually insurmountable. Israel and the Palestinians have never been further apart on final-status issues since formal negotiations began more than 20 years ago. Hamas and Fatah appear hopelessly deadlocked on everything from elections and a possible "unity" government to the bigger picture issues of the nature of Palestinian society, relations with the West, to what national liberation would look like and how it should be achieved.
Within those groups there's also significant factional infighting and a sense that domestic political power and national policy -- including the very concept of a two-state solution -- are at stake. Recent strikes and demonstrations against the Palestinian government about economic grievances and violent protests against Israeli treatment of prisoners have also erupted in the region.
Among Israelis there is a marked lack of consensus about social policies, settlements, the feasibility of the two-state solution, and need for, or even desirability, of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And while Israel continues to enjoy a special relationship with the United States, strains between Obama and Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strains that began over the settlement-freeze issue, haven't really abated. Washington's relationship with the Palestinian leadership has also been under serious pressure over both American disapproval of Palestinian diplomatic moves at the United Nations and Palestinian frustration with the American inability to shift Israel on settlements.
The future of Palestine, Israel and the rest of the Middle East will be determined more by an ongoing contest of ideas than by the exigencies of the present moment.
Under these circumstances, and with a significant recent deterioration of the political, security, and economic situation on the ground, a major strategic advance in the immediate future remains an ambitious agenda.
The antagonisms between and within the parties are shaped by their regional context, in particular the upheavals in several Arab countries, especially Egypt and Syria. The Arab political scene is generally characterized by a contest between three major trends: traditional regimes and their state structures, rising Islamist movements, and fledgling new opposition groups centered on universal values and the rights of citizens.
Arab monarchies have their own unique dynamics. They have the benefit of being integrated into the international economy and global security system, advantages need not only to preserve but enhance as they negotiate their internal issues. Their challenge is maintaining hard-won stability by developing a consensus between government and opposition on how to ensure the consent of the governed.
In the rest of the Arab world, a number of long-standing regimes -- ranging from war-torn Syria, to unstable Sudan and Yemen, and a wary Algeria -- continue to face demands for change, and, like the rest of the region, they're confronted by two rising and opposing trends: The first, and best organized, are the Islamist groups, both Sunni and Shiite. They claim authenticity based on religious and cultural uniqueness and foster dreams of recuperating cultural and doctrinal "purity." The other trend is the fledgling groups informed by universal, pluralistic and democratic values and deeply connected to developments throughout the world.
In a sense, the Islamist trend looks to the future in terms of a return to a largely imaginary past. The nascent pluralists, on the other hand, seek to build a future for a Middle East that's integrated into a broader, rapidly developing global economy and society. The Islamists essentially point the Arabs in the direction of Iran or Sudan, while the universalists and pluralists look towards the West.