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SIS Panel Explores Obama’s Role in Brokering Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The arrival of a new administration in Washington brings with it hope—however faint—for renewed American vigor in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But the challenges facing President Obama and all the actors in the Middle East remain daunting. In light of the war in Gaza, just what role will the Obama administration play in the peace process?

That was the central question facing three experts at the Jan. 28 School of International Service event moderated by SIS professor Boaz Atzili. Opinions and optimism among the panelists varied, but all agreed that the road to peace will not be easy.

“The United States needs to make clear that the resolution of this conflict is in our national interest,” said Amjad Atallah, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. Obama’s opposition to many Bush administration policies that were unpopular in the Arab world—Guantanamo, Iraqi occupation—has made it possible for the Arab world to engage with the United States in a way it couldn’t before, he said.

Yoram Peri, the Berman Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at AU, praised the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as an envoy to the region, but believes Israel is much more likely to reach a peace accord with Syria in the near future than it is with Palestine.

“Both the Israelis and Palestinians are moving toward the extreme positions,” said Peri, head of the Rothschild-Caesarea School of Communication and Chaim Herzog Institute at Tel Aviv University. “I do not see any opportunity for Israel and Palestine to close a deal if there will be no third party who is very strong. If the status quo continues for the next two or three years, it could be the end of the two-state solution. This would be horrible for both the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Aaron David Miller has devoted much of his life to this issue. A U.S. government advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1978 to 2003, Miller has worked on the tough issues—settlements, Jerusalem, security, refugees—for six secretaries of state.

“For the last 16 years we have been failing,” he said. “We are neither admired or feared in a region of the world that is [vital] to our foreign policy. We are not a great power in the way the Arabs and Israelis believe us to be. We could become a great power again if we are smart, tough, and fair in the way we worked. We have not had a president or a secretary of state who knew what they were doing since [George W. Bush’s] father.”

Obama’s relationship with the new Israeli prime minister, who will be chosen during elections on Feb. 10, will be critical, Miller said.

“It is our special relationship with Israel that gives us our relevance,” he said. “We just can’t allow our special relationship to morph into what I call an exclusive one. The key for this president is whether or not he understands that distinction without being made to feel defiant by the American Israeli lobby.”