It takes uncommon grit for a US president to tell Israelis and Palestinians how to solve their differences rather than merely mediate between them.
Mr. Obama has no choice – despite strong resistance from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ever since the Arab “awakening” erupted in December, the Middle East has begun a “story of self-determination,” Obama stated.
The Arab world, in other words, is trying to liberate itself and the Palestinians cannot very well be left behind.
Mr. Obama seeks consistent principles toward a region in which history is being made fast. The US can’t be a cheerleader for Arab reform without also bringing along the two peoples locked in intractable conflict over land and security. He is pushing Israelis and Palestinians to come aboard the region’s freedom train.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” he stated in his May 19 speech, “and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation [of Palestinian land].”
The US president rejects calls for caution from Israel in the face of the region’s uncertainties. When Arabs are rising up for freedom, he says, an Israeli-Palestinian peace is “more urgent than ever.”
His optimism toward Arab liberation also makes him impatient about a peace process he calls “endless.” That frustration may explain why he laid out specific solutions to help kick-start negotiations:
1. For the first time, the US has clearly and publicly endorsed a peace plan based on borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War – when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem – while also allowing for “swaps” of small parcels of land.
2. Palestinians must guarantee Israel’s security before talks begin over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees living in Arab countries. And they must accept no military for their new state.
3. Israeli forces must fully withdraw from the West Bank.
Those and other points help form a framework for talks, but they also compel Obama to pressure both sides to achieve, unless the US will lose credibility.
He will need to arm-twist Mr. Abbas to come to the negotiating table. And he’ll need to resist pressure from US lawmakers swayed by Mr. Netanhayu’s politicking during his five-day stay in the US – which includes a speech before Congress on Tuesday.
The startling mental shift of Arabs to seek freedom must be harnessed for good, not suppressed to keep the status quo. That effort is even more timely with the killing of the head of Al Qaeda, which further diminishes the call to create Islamic theocracies in the Middle East.
Previous US presidents have tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But none has the historic opportunity that Obama now has to use the regional cry for freedom and insist that it be made real.