By Aaron David Miller
President-elect Barack Obama will be bombarded with recommendations about how to approach Arab-Israeli peacemaking. One piece of advice he should not take is to make Israeli-Palestinian peace his top priority. There's no deal there. But there is a real opportunity for an Israeli-Syrian agreement, and Obama should go for it.
There are, of course, strong arguments for making Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority. The Palestinians deserve a state of their own, and an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not just key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace but to Israel's long-term survival as a Jewish democratic state.
A new president eager to repair America's image abroad may be tempted to try for an agreement, but he should avoid the sirens' call. No conflict-ending agreement is possible now, nor is one likely to be anytime soon, and the stakes are too high for America to harbor illusions that would almost certainly lead to yet another failure. The gaps separating the two sides on the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security) remain too wide, the current leaders are too weak to bridge them, and the environment on the ground is too complicated to allow for sustainable negotiations.
In Palestine, dysfunction and confusion reign. The Palestinian national movement is riven with geographic and political divisions between Hamas (itself divided) and Fatah (even more divided). There is little chance of creating a united Palestinian house that can take control of the guns and offer up a viable and unified negotiating position that any Israeli government could accept. Weak leadership and unstable coalition politics prevail in Israel, too. And Israeli settlement activity, which continues unabated, rounds out a nightmarish picture that ought to scare away any smart mediator.
It would be folly to go for broke, given these conditions. The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all might be an appropriate rallying cry for a college football coach; it isn't a suitable foreign policy principle for the world's greatest power. The well-intentioned old college try, which was President Clinton's mantra at Camp David in July 2000, reinforced by his advisers, myself included, proved costly. And we had much better conditions in 2000 (if still not the right ones) than the new administration faces.
The more compelling argument is for a major push on another negotiation: between Israel and Syria. Here, there are two states at the table, rather than one state and a dysfunctional national movement. A quiet border, courtesy of Henry Kissinger's 1974 disengagement diplomacy, prevails. And there are fewer settlers on the Golan Heights and no megaton issues such as the status of Jerusalem to blow up the talks. Indeed, the issues are straightforward — withdrawal, peace, security and water — and the gaps are clear and ready to be bridged.
For a president looking for a way to buck up America's credibility, an Israeli-Syrian agreement offers a potential bonus. Such a deal would begin to realign the region's architecture in a way that serves broader U.S. interests. The White House would have to be patient. Syria won't walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually, requiring a major international effort to marshal economic and political support for Damascus. Still, an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran with tough choices and reduced options.
None of this will be easy. An Obama administration, and particularly the new president, would need to be in the middle of things. It would be excruciatingly hard, time-consuming and expensive to satisfy Israel and Syria's economic and security needs, and a final agreement would most likely involve U.S. peacekeepers. More important, the United States would need to push the two sides further than they are now willing to go, on the extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights in Israel's case, on normalization and security in Syria's. But with Israeli and Syrian leaders who are serious, and with a new administration ready to be tough, smart and fair in its diplomacy, a deal can be done.
So, Mr. President-elect, go ahead and try to buck up the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, train Palestinian security forces, pour economic aid into Gaza and the West Bank, and quietly nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But don't go for the endgame — you won't get there. Instead, invest in an Israeli-Syrian peace, and, afterward, you might find, with a historic success under your belt and America again admired for its competence, you will be better positioned to achieve the success you want in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well.
Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has worked as a Middle East adviser for Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. His most recent book is "The Much Too Promised Land."