One of Obama's challenges, like it has been to every President since Harry Truman, is the Israeli conflict with its neighbors. And, more specifically, with the Palestinians in the occupied territories that Israel has held since the 1967 war.
The last time there was major progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was in 2000, which President Clinton brokered peace talks that eventually broke down. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and now head of the largest party, Kadima, after the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has been unsuccessful in her negotiations to form a new government. In Israel's parliamentary system, it means she could find acceptable conditions with enough other parties to get a majority in parliament for her new government. In the end, she was unable to come to agreement with the very religious Shas Party, and Shas opposition to any compromise over the status of Jerusalem was one of the main sticking points. It is looking very much like new elections will have to be held.
Joschka Fischer writes about some of the problems this presents in Netanjahu ante portasDie Zeit 27.10.2008. As he points out, the two main contenders for Prime Minister will be Livni and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak's Labor Party looks to be in bad shape.
A poll by the Dahaf Research Institute showed Livni's Kadima Party winning 29 of parliament's 120 seats, the same number it has now, and Netanyahu's Likud taking 26 if elections were held today. A TNS Teleseker survey gave Kadima 31 seats to Likud's 29.
Both surveys said Labor, which is now the second largest party, would win 11 seats if elections were held this week.
In the last nationwide election, held in 2006, Kadima held 29 seats, Labor 19 and the Likud 12.
Kadima, the largest party, can't come close to winning a majority on its own. Likud is the most hardline party, the one to which American neoconservatives are most aligned in their thinking on foreign policy. But even with the current Knesset composition, Kadima and Labor didn't have a majority on their own.
That means to form a government requires in practice requires the inclusion of smaller parties, which like Shas are often very religious and may have hardline views on a particular aspect of Israeli-Palestinian differences, like the status of Jerusalem. That and the fact that it takes three or more separate political parties to form a government has become a chronic problem for Israel.
And what it means in terms of peace negotiations is that it's nearly impossible to get a government that can have a stable hold on power long enough to make the kind of tough agreements that would be necessary to create a permanent framework that would bring peace, or something close to it.
It's not that there's any great mystery about what a realistic settlement would have to include. As Fischer summarizes it:
The borders of before the Six Day War of 1967 including Jerusalem, a smaller negotiated exchange of territory, no "right of return" for refugees to go back to Israel within the borders of 1967 with the exception of particular humanitarian cases. [my translation]
Fischer does not specifically mention another essential element, the removal of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Achieving those goals, though, and tying down all the loose ends of the details, will be very difficult. Since 2000, Palestinian politics have become deeply divided between Fatah and and Hamas, to the point of an intra-Palestinian civil war. That situation in itself is a victory of sorts for Israeli policies of the past. Israel encouraged the development of the radical Islamic Hamas in its early days to divide the Palestinians away from support for the the sucular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Fatah was the leading group.
But now Hamas is the leading party among Palestinians. And Fischer expects that once the presidential mandate of Fatah's Mahmud Abbas in the Palestinian Authority (PA) expires this coming January, that he and Fatah will be in an even weaker position. Though Hamas is more radical than Fatah at this point, it's not that Hamas would never make a deal. But, as Fischer puts it, "With a Palestine that is split, there can hardly be a peace treaty that can be taken seriously."
On Israel's side, Livni is regarded as being open to a serious peace initiative. And Olmert was moving in that direction. Fischer notes that Likud's Netanyahu in his previous term as Prime Minister proved to be "ultra-flexible" once in power. But Likud and its backers are hardline against a meaningful peace settlement. And even after the election, Livni will still have difficulty putting together a governing coalition that could hold together to push through a meaningful peace treaty, even if political conditions for it on the Palestinian side should dramatically improve.
Fischer describes a prospect that has been discussed more in recent months. Which is that if Israel cannot agree on a two-state solution soon, time may soon run out for that to be a practical option any longer:
Thereby the two-state solution, the only compromise thinkable, threats to be lost forever. And this danger is already very real. For Israel this is a depressing prospect, because the alternative to two states is the continuation of the occupatio of Palestinian territories by Israel and as the de facto result, a binational state.
Precisely this development would be the greatest strategic threat for the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, because the majority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterreanean would shift in the coming years to the benefit of the Arab population. For the Palestinians, this means further decades of occupation and life in an ever-worsoning despair.[my translation]
For an additional angle on the politics of raising the danger of the one-state option becoming the only remaining one, see Daniel Levy, The Alternative to Paralysis Prospects for Peace blog 10/03/08. (I should also note that the particular word Fischer uses for the Jordan River, "Jordangraben", which more literally would be "Jordan Ditch", may have some special intended meaning. But I don't know what that might be.)
It's not an encouraging picture. But an Obama administration would still need to make a very serious effort to keep the peace process moving forward. The United States is currently involved in two wars in the Islamic world, in both Iraq and Afghanistan that also is spilling over into Pakistan, Syria and even Somalia. The Islamic world needs to see the United States being serious about the peace process. It won't make "Al Qa'ida" types stop hating us. But it will ratchet down the general hostility to the United States. Because the Israel-Palestine conflict remains an intense general grievance of the Muslim world against "the West".
The fact that the Israel-Palestine problem has proven to be so intractable shouldn't be an excuse for inaction on the part of the United States. On the contrary, it should lend a sense of urgency. But it's also important to recognize that the problem is a serious one, not at all easily solved. Fischer concludes by observing that if the United States is successful in reducing tensions through regional diplomacy among the Muslim state in the Middle East - which will have to be a major component of the process of withdrawing troops from Iraq - that would have a positive effect on the Israel-Palestine peace process. "But even then it won't be solved for a long time."
I'm guessing that Fischer would be happy to be proven wrong on that point.