When I interviewed former President Carter about how to pursue and achieve peace in the Middle East, he made two essential points.
First: “It is possible for an American President to advance the peace process, to achieve meaningful progress. It is also necessary–more necessary now than it has ever been.”
Second: To achieve meaningful progress, however, a president must start immediately.
“As you know, it is not generally expected that they will do this in the first year or two of their administration,” Carter said of the work of prodding Israel and its neighbors not merely to negotiate but to make the compromises necessary to achieve a lasting peace.”President Clinton did not do it until his last year in office, and President Bush now is saying that he is going to try and do something. I’m not bragging about myself, but I started in the first two months of my administration. We finished it the second year I was in office. It is possible to achieve progress, if you start early enough and make it clear that peace is a priority of the administration.”
Carter is, of course, correct.
Despite the battering he takes from those who do not know the Middle East, and from those who for reasons of politics do not want to see peace between Israel and Palestine, Carter is the only member of the fraternity of current and former presidents who has any useful advice to offer an incoming American leader with regard to advancing a peace process.
That is why, when we sort through all of the statements that Barack Obama made during his recent visit to the Middle East, the only one that really matters is this: ”My goal is to make sure that we work starting from the minute I’m sworn in to office to try to find some breakthroughs.”
It is the commitment to engage from Day 1 that is critical.
As Carter explained to me, this has less to do with timing than with priorities.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have grown accustomed to American Presidents who do not pay serious attention to the region until they are in the legacy-building stage of their tenures. Only when a president is thinking about how he might win a Nobel Prize for Peace does he decide to try and skip across the minefields of the Middle East.
By then, as Clinton learned and as Bush is learning, it is too late. A lame-duck president is not in a position to make progress in a part of the world that, for better or worse, responds best to strength and stability.
Obama, whose world tour was sufficiently successful to stir serious discussion of what his presidency might entail, will be in a unique position to promote peace in the region. Unlike Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who refused to meet with the Palestinians, Obama has held the right meetings with right players and begun to make the connections that will be necessary to promoting peace in the region.
More importantly, Obama has got the timeline right.
A president who is serious about Middle East peace must start working to achieve it on Day 1 — not on that day, late in a failed administration, when it occurs to him that history tends to reflect favorably upon peacemakers.