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After Gaza, how Obama can pick up the pieces

The conflict gives him critical leverage to prod long-needed concessions from both Palestinians and Israelis.

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The brutal competition between Palestinians and Israelis has placed an unsustainable mortgage on the futures of both. Nor is it a contest that either side can win. Arab nationalism, reflected in demands for a Palestinian state, can be contained by Israel at high political, military, and moral cost, but not extinguished, even if missile attacks from Gaza are stanched and Hamas crushed. Meanwhile, while Palestinian military and terrorist attacks may win moral and public relations victories on the Arab street, they will never attain Hamas's goal of driving Jews into the sea.

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It is the very pointlessness of the continuing conflict – and the danger that it could radicalize Arab opinion, put pressure on moderate Arab regimes, and nourish anti-US and anti-Israel sentiment around the globe – that provide Obama with the unanswerable argument needed to justify a more-assertive US peacemaking role.

Opposition will be formidable. Mutual hatreds, fears, and habits of conflict are deeply ingrained, making both sides reluctant to consider needed concessions. Meanwhile, Obama – like every president before him – will face a powerful domestic lobby, overwhelmingly supported in Congress, that has shielded Israel from concessions (such as Jewish settlements on Palestinian land), that, made earlier, might have spared the region considerable anguish.

Prospects are fast diminishing to effect the only viable compromise that can retrieve the region from escalating conflict: the very two-state solution envisioned by the United Nations the year before Israel was created, in 1948. Among other things, such an outcome would force all Palestinian factions, not just Fatah, to accept a permanent Jewish state in Palestine. It would require Israel to relinquish Zionist aspirations that now extend well into the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank.

In the face of certain opposition, Obama need only ask one inescapable question: What's the alternative?

Pressing the point, especially in the early stages of an administration that will need to husband as much goodwill as possible to deal with economic issues at home, will require presidential risk-taking on an unprecedented scale. But two risk-taking American presidents – Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, brokers, respectively, of the Camp David and Madrid peace processes – have demonstrated the possibilities.

Events in the intervening years make the odds longer for Obama, even as the stakes are now higher. But if he chooses to capitalize on the outpouring of global goodwill that greeted his election, the results could be transformative, for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for the world.

George Moffett is a former Middle East correspondent for the Monitor.