Just when it appeared that the United States was about to wash its hands from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, new information is emerging from Washington indicating the opposite.
Many observers of U.S. foreign policy understand that in an election year, the U.S. is unable to articulate a coherent (and possibly confrontational with the pro-Israel lobby) strategy in regards to the Palestinian conflict. The day after President Barack Obama won a hard-fought electoral battle in which the Israeli prime minister clearly and publicly favored his opponent, many expected that the U.S. president would immediately shift to a more genuinely neutral policy towards the Middle East conflict. That may still happen, but foreign policy, like everything else, can’t be carried out without a well thought-out strategy, action plan and most importantly individuals who will carry the baton and implement it.
With the position of the special Middle East envoy George Mitchell having been vacated even before the beginning of the election cycle, and key members of the foreign policy team leaving, the U.S. president was not about to begin a process in the Middle East and get his fingers burned again. It also didn’t make sense for the American diplomatic machine to begin before the Israeli elections and before an Israeli government was formed, its policies articulated and the Knesset voting confidence in it.
These important pieces of the puzzle are now falling in place. The new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, has been confirmed, Israeli elections have been held and despite the trouble facing Chuck Hagel, his confirmation is no longer in question.
Just as he did immediately after being sworn in the first time, President Obama has made it clear that his team will keep the Middle East conflict as a high U.S. priority. Rumors that America will outsource attempts to resolving the conflict to the Brits and French have appeared to be premature. But unlike his previous effort, Obama seems more focused on working on this conflict himself rather than depending on envoys, the secretary of state or others. Obviously, having won the elections and not having to worry about any new elections will make it easier for the most powerful man in the world to try and create the conditions that will make it possible to bring about peace.
In order to prepare the conditions for his new efforts, President Obama has taken a few preliminary acts that signal his administration’s seriousness. It started with the announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry will be coming to the region and meeting with all the key leaders. Kerry knows all important Middle East politicians well because of his previous position as the head of the foreign relations committee in the U.S. senate.
Then came the surprise announcement that the U.S. president himself will visit the region. The announcement specifically mentioned Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. The importance of the decision reverses earlier U.S. positions that the president would only come to the region if and when there is a breakthrough to be celebrated. The White House announcement that U.S. President Barack Obama will come in March even without any indication that an agreement has been reached possibly indicates that Obama plans to put the office of the presidency on board to push through a peace agreement rather than wait for the parties or maybe the Europeans to help broker a deal.
Naturally the announcement for the March visit, as well as the Kerry visit that will precede it, will put into action a number of efforts that aim at preparing the stage for such a visit. It is also seen as a nudge for the coalition negotiators in Israel to make sure not to allow the issues of peace with the Palestinians be relegated to the back burner.
U.S. history seems to indicate that the first year or two of an elected president seem to give the resident of the White House unique powers to push through priority areas. Obama tried that in his first term along with a major health plan. He succeeded in the latter and failed in the peace effort.
This time around, clearly a more mature Obama is more focused on the Middle East and has no hesitation to move ahead quickly in making things happen. After all, Obama has yet to produce the peace that the Nobel committee had expected of him when they decided to give him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
In his acceptance speech in Oslo, Obama recognized that the award is often given as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. While he spoke in generalities about many world issues, there was one cause that Obama mentioned specifically.
“I will accept this award as a call to action — a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century." He said these challenges included "the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, climate change, tolerance among people of different faiths and races and religions, peace between and security for Israelis and Palestinians."
While he failed to accomplish that specific goal in his first term, he seems set to use his second term to make it possible as he sets up his historic legacy.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region.