Fascinating if true. But I have my own theory, which I’ve named the Easiest Log Theory. That is, you’re looking at a logjam. Under layers of timber, you can see the handful of logs that are really causing the problem. But you can’t start with those because you can’t get to them. You start with the ones that are easiest to remove. Water will flow, even if just a trickle. And eventually you’ll get to the big ones.
Israel and the settlements are the easiest log. There’s no point starting with the Palestinians: (a) They’re harder to deal with, and (b) who speaks for them anyway? (“They’re Humpty Dumpty,” said Miller.) Fatah and Hamas make the Republicans look coherent. So in my theory, the thinking is: Get a concession out of Bibi, which sorta-kinda happened when he used the words “Palestinian state” in his June 14 speech, and get the Israelis (and the key U.S. Jewish players) into a time-for-action mind-set. Then take that to the Palestinians—and, crucially, to other Arab leaders—and say: “Okay. They’ve moved. Your turn.”
Of course, I am not, and Obama is not, the first person in history to think of this. But two big factors are different now.
First, the Obama team. It’s strong. You have Clinton and Mitchell. You have a roster of second-tier players who were widely praised in my chats last week: Mara Rudman is Mitchell’s top aide; Fred Hoff is another; David Hale another (he’s moving to Jerusalem full time). On the National Security Council staff, Daniel Shapiro is widely respected, and Dennis Ross may be brought over, in a move presumably meant to placate Israeli hawks. As a group, they and others get high marks for knowledge, experience, and seriousness.
They do, some sources say, fall into different camps—not so much hawks and doves as, for example, those who want Obama to pursue broad regional deals simultaneously (that mostly means an Israel-Syria deal, which isn’t impossible); those who think the most important step is to elevate Palestinian moderates and isolate Hamas; those who are sensitive about pushing Israel too hard. This last category includes chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, but Emanuel, I’m told, is more intent on peace than people think. He’s called the Oslo Accords signing ceremony at the Clinton White House in 1993, which he choreographed, one his proudest moments. “[A solution] is sort of unfinished business from his earlier days,” says one insider.
Mostly, there’s Obama himself. He’s invested in getting a deal, and, unlike Bush, he’s deep in the details. “He’s advising the advisers,” says James Zogby of the Arab American Institute.
And the second thing that’s changed? Congress. Traditionally, Congress was, as one person told me, “the court of appeals for the Jews.” If Israel didn’t like what a president was up to, they went to Capitol Hill. They’d fix things.
That is suddenly and thoroughly different. If Netanyahu was surprised by Obama’s frankness, he was shocked to sit with Jewish members of Congress the next day and hear them say “It’s time to do this” instead of “We’ve got your back.” Nadler wasn’t present but confirms this reaction from friends who were. As long as Obama is showing leadership, and it looks like he might get results, Congress will watch his back more than Bibi’s.
No one expects miracles here. The paradox is that at this moment of resolve and openness in Washington, there is more fear and distrust in the region than usual. Obama will have to get tough on what’s called “Palestinian incitement” (anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, promotion of violence). And that’s even before getting to the real issues (borders, Jerusalem, the rest).
But at this early point, we can say this much. Obama wants to be a serious foreign-policy president. And his speech in Cairo, and his rhetoric of transformation in general, have clearly helped light a fuse that caught fire in Lebanon and in the demonstrations in Iran. But we’re now starting to enter the phase where the deeds need to match the speeches. This is emerging as the great tension of this presidency, from health care to the Middle East and now to Iran: Can he take advantage of the energies his words have set in motion?