Meeting of presidential minds

Peres and Obama share a distinctly cerebral attitude, and so long as Obama steers clear of steering clear from the conflict, the advice exchanged between the two presidents tomorrow could prove effective towards reinstating a peace process.

peres obama flags 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
peres obama flags 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
President Shimon Peres has met every American President since Harry Truman. Two of them, Truman and Eisenhower, graced the Oval Office before President Obama was born and one, John F. Kennedy met Peres when Obama was a year and a half old.
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This is not a testament to Peres' seniority as much as an illustration of the scope and unique perspective he brings with him to the proposed meeting at the White House tomorrow.
Obama appreciates broad-brush assessments and all-encompassing trends and few, if any, in the world can provide the US president with a powerful tour d'horizon of the current Middle East like Peres can. Peres may prove right or wrong, but his savvy geopolitical analyses are such that no PDB (Presidential Daily Brief containing all relevant intelligence information and assessments) can match. Peres' type of analysis also caters to a cerebral, inquisitive and deliberative president like Obama.
In this respect, Obama and Peres are alike in a way that will leave Obama wondering what if Peres would have been made prime minister.
The point however, is not what imprint Peres will make on Obama, but rather what he will learn from the latter on America's policy. In Israel, there is a distinct lack of information on the Obama administration’s thoughts on the Middle East, and Peres will be tasked with inferring insights on the president’s intended direction.
Peres’ is going to Washington to exchange thoughts, relay ideas and convince a very skeptical and impatient Obama that the peace process - or any peace process for that matter - can still be resuscitated. Peres will try and alleviate American fears by explaining that Israel's sudden infatuation with the do-nothing status-quo stems from political difficulties and Palestinian intransigence, and in no way means that Israel rejects the two-states model.
For all his flaws and arguable mismanagement of US-Israeli relations, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu means well and is profoundly cognizant of the fact that a process needs to be launched with US involvement.
The Palestinians, Peres will tell Obama, seek to internationalize the conflict and gain statehood without negotiations through a UN vote come September. The fact is, Mr. President, that that decision is not only bad news for Israel, it is bad news generally. Unsustainable and a recipe for instability, such a decision will ultimately prolong the conflict rather than moving it towards a settled termination.
Mr. President, you have pressured us and to a certain degree, the pressures were fair. But if you want to play the effective mediator in a way that will ultimately serve US interests and posture in the region, you have to also apply pressure and project power - soft and hard - on the Palestinians.
Peres will be meeting a president that is in a relatively good and prepetually-improving political condition. The economy is faring better (although perceptions and statistics are often irreconcilable) unemployment has decreased, and the effects of the economic policies introduced in 2010 are slowly but steadily beginning to show positive returns.
Obama had just launched his reelection bid for 2012 and despite a below-50% approval rating, he still boasts a high personal-favorability one. The last president to exhibit such a gap (and who also suffered heavy losses in Congressional mid-term elections) was Ronald Reagan – and yet, in 1984, Reagan easily won reelection.
Republicans seem to lack a compelling or coherent message and even though it is too early to determine, they lack a clear front-runner who walks the walk and talks the talk of a future president.
So Peres knows that should he visit the White House after January 2013, there is a good chance that he'll be meeting again with the same man. No doubt Peres has conveyed this prediction to Netanyahu.
The learning curve of Obama's foreign policy has improved recently as disasters mounted and more challenges presented themselves. It is better, the president will tell Peres, to be inconsistently right than consistently wrong, especially in light of the fact that the various crises of the last three months all radically differ from one another.
Hence the reason that an "Obama Doctrine" does not exist. Obama is too flexible and the crises too varied for a clear and discernible doctrine to have been devised.
Which brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Without a doctrine, what is there?
Just a few weeks ago the White House was contemplating disbanding the office of the Middle East Envoy, established with much fanfare immediately after the 2008 elections and headed by George Mitchell. The rationale for that decision was that for all intents and purposes there is no peace process; Instead of reinstating himself as a trusted ally, Netanyahu and his government failed to engage in any serious process.
The Palestinians are not helping matters with their newly acquired love affair with the UN that they think is a substitute for decision-making.
But in the end, the verdict was to keep the Envoy operation intact, if only because at a time of upheavals and uncertainty in the Middle East, shutting shop would send bad signals to the Arab world.
The political-campaign attitude dictates that during election year, Obama would do well to steer clear - or at least stay well above - the Israeli-Palestinian fray. It expends political capital, it provides Republicans with an easy issue to attack him on (mistreating a loyal ally etc) and the chances of a breakthrough are slim to none. Peres fears that Obama may heed the advice of his peers that getting involved in the conflict will be futile, and that even if he does manage to accomplish some success, voters in Michigan or Ohio will surely not care.
Obama's hesitations are thus two-pronged: the questionable dedication of Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and the domestic political setting.
Both impose serious constraints.
All this makes Peres' mission even more daunting. He needs to convince Obama that Israel is indeed intent on progress; he needs to also convince him that the Palestinians can be reined in and that it is in America's interest to keep on pushing.
Yet there is a potential flip side to this scenario. Peres may conclude that Obama is committed after all, and does not want to endorse a standoffish approach. If Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of negotiating or are reluctant to make bold decisions, maybe a plan should be presented to them. That could conceivably avert the September UN vote and compel both parties to at least take a stand and react.
After all Shimon, Obama might say, isn't this the right way to go if we want to move forward and effectively deal with Iran?
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.