American foreign policy Barack Obama Israel Middle East peace process Palestinians

Will Obama, Clinton or McCain make Israel-Palestine a priority on Day 1?

To gauge what the presidential candidates might do about the ongoing Arab-Israeli nightmare, one has to make inferences based on inflections, hints, nuances and tea leaves. What they or their campaign staffers say now is at least as important as the identity of 4 or 5 of the many “foreign policy advisors” who have communicated with them.

One of the measures I am using to judge candidates is not only who is most likely to have a robust, creative and at least occasionally evenhanded Middle East policy, but also who is most likely to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a high priority from their first day in office.

In “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace –American Leadership in the Middle East” published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky have offered a host of concrete, practical suggestions to the next administration, based on interviews with dozens of diplomats and others who know what they are talking about. Several of their recommendations require a commitment to putting the issue on the front burner and keeping it there:

1) The president needs to adopt a hands-on policy from the beginning of his/her term. The Arab-Israeli question ought to figure prominently in an early presidential speech, sending a loud and clear signal that the issue is high on the agenda.

2) From the first day in office, the president ought to charge those responsible for Middle East policy with developing…a comprehensive and durable strategy not just to manage the conflict, but to end it. Such a strategy must include concrete proposals for monitoring and judging compliance by all sides.

3) The United States should lock in the gains of earlier negotiations, especially before public support in the region erodes or events on the ground further undermine prospects for a peaceful settlement.

Interestingly, Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, appears to agree with Kurtzer/Lasensky, based on an interview with Roger Cohen in the NY Times last month (“No Manchurian Candidate,” 2/11/2008):

Foreign policy will roar back once this is a straight Republican-Democrat fight. A Democrat who’s going to win has be strong on core American defense principles, which include Israel’s security.

Obama feels Israel in his kishkas, all right. Equally, he feels dialogue, which has been his way of getting things done since he became a Chicago community organizer in the 1980s. There would be no six-year time-outs on Israel-Palestine under an Obama presidency. “He’d be actively involved from day one,” said Axelrod.

That does not mean that Hillary or McCain disagree. We just haven’t heard from their campaigns about the extent to which the conflict will be an early, and high, priority. But we do know that Hillary’s foreign policy advisors who are actively campaigning for her include the estimable Mara Rudman, former NSC Chief of Staff and Deputy National Security Advisor in the Clinton Administration. She is clearly an advocate of vigorous American engagement in the region (and on the board of Americans for Peace Now)…

Anyone else have tea leaf readings, inflections, dreams or visions that are worth sharing?

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