Writing about U.S. Middle East policy used to be a boring job. You’d start out with “The U.S. supports Israel’s stand on…” and then just fill in the details. No longer. Many pundits claim to smell the winds of policy change blowing from the White House. Every word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the president or his advisors is now parsed by journalists like so many soothsayers studying oracle bones.
Mr. Obama himself remains as cryptic as those bones and as open to divergent interpretations. At a recent press conference, he cautioned that "the two sides may say to themselves, ‘We are not prepared to resolve these issues no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear.’"
In the same breath, though, the president added: “It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because… when conflicts break out, one way or another, we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”
Blood and treasure… Aha! the New York Times exclaimed, the president is signaling “a renewed determination to reinsert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.” “Obama’s recalibration of U.S. Middle East diplomacy is ground-shifting,” Times columnist Roger Cohen reported from Jerusalem. “He’s being pummeled from the usual quarters but he’ll stay the course.” Noam Chomsky, however, speaks for the many skeptical observers who expect Obama to stay on the old course of U.S. backing for Israel’s domination of the Palestinians.
Yet rumors of change are distinctly in the air. “If Israeli-Palestinian talks remain stalemated into September or October, [Obama] will convene an international summit on achieving Mideast peace,” says one typical report. The U.S. will no longer veto “UN security council condemnation of any significant new Israeli settlement activity,” says another. The U.S. will push for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, says a third.
Some Washington insiders claim that Obama intends to propose his own peace plan. Obama denies this, but were he to change his mind, Bill Clinton, for one, says he would “strongly support it.” When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was questioned about the possibility and he responded only, “That time is not now,” he left plenty of room for speculation that the time might be coming soon.