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State of the Union Address: Obama Should Recommit to Assertive Mideast Peacemaking

Following President Obama's admission to Time Magazine last week that Middle East peacemaking has turned out to be harder than he expected, speculation is mounting that Obama will decide that he has no political choice but to abandon his ambitious Mideast peace efforts.
 
This would be a terrible mistake. If he addresses the Middle East at all tonight, at his State of the Union Address, the President should make clear that he will not make this mistake.
 
The lesson to be drawn from 2009 is not that peace is too difficult or has too high a political price.  The lesson of 2009 is that it takes more than patience and polite words to make peace.

Obama got off on the right foot in the Middle East in 2009.  Right out of the box, he articulated a clear vision for Middle East peace.  All year his peace team worked tirelessly to make progress toward that goal. 
 
Their efforts were stymied, however, by intransigence on the part of both Israel and the Palestinians and by lack of buy-in from the Arab world.
 
They were also stymied by the President's stubborn resolve - demonstrated by Senator Mitchell and Secretary Clinton - to pull punches, mince words, and generally be unfailingly patient and polite, regardless of the behavior of others.
 
The lesson of 2009 is that it's time for Obama to play political hardball, both with the parties in the Middle East and with critics of his policy in the US.  Now is the time to get tough: make clear that US national security is at stake, spell out real expectations, and make no bones about the fact that there will be real consequences when these expectations are not met.
 
This will surely be a daunting prospect for President Obama.  It is clearly not the way he likes to do business.  Worse still, many of his political friends and advisors will no doubt warn of dire consequences in Congress and in the mid-term elections. 
 
But they are mistaken if they think Obama is taking a political risk by holding his ground - and turning up the heat - on his Middle East peace policy.   And they are wrong if they think that he can reduce his political risk by backing off from his peace efforts.
 
They are wrong because if 2009 has shown anything, it is that right-wing opponents of peace in the US and Israel - those who oppose Israel giving up an inch of the West Bank, or oppose any sharing of Jerusalem - will attack Obama, irrespective of his policy, approach, or tone. 
Whatever he does, Israeli right-wingers are portraying his efforts as a threat to Israel and their US supporters are using his efforts score political points, saying that he - and Democrats in general - are too tough on Israel.  
 
Putting the Middle East on the back-burner will earn Obama no credit with such critics.  More likely, doing so will only invite even more virulent attacks on the grounds that his peace agenda was irresponsible from the start.  They'll claim he is not a responsible steward of US foreign policy.  They'll accuse him of being anti-Israel and claim that it was only the efforts of so-called "true friends of Israel" that forced him to change course. 
 
Politically, the bottom line is this:  Obama can stand by a tough, principled, defensible policy - one that has a real chance of delivering achievements that are vital to US national security and to Israel - and take the hit from those who oppose peace.  Or he can abandon this policy for an approach that serves neither US nor Israeli interests, and take a harder hit.
 
Finally, President Obama should bear in mind that there is no stable status quo in the Middle East - either things are getting better or they are getting worse.  Should he decide to put his peace efforts to the side, he must remember that it is only a matter of time before events on the ground will force the issue back to the top of his agenda in the form of a crisis.
 
The logical conclusion is the same, whether you view this as a foreign policy expert or a political strategist: 2010 is the year for President Obama to boldly and decisively lead the way to peace.  And this time, he should be ready to play hardball. Tonight is a golden opportunity for Obama to signal that this is where he is headed.