The wrong person for the Middle East job

THE WRONG PERSON FOR THE MIDDLE EAST JOB…. I can appreciate outside-the-box thinking as much as the next blogger, and I realize the appeal of contrarian arguments hold for many editors.

But Newsweek ran a piece yesterday from Gregory Levey arguing that President Obama should make George W. Bush his envoy to the Middle East. Seriously.

On Sunday, George Mitchell, President Obama’s Middle East envoy, arrived in Israel to confer with its leaders. Also visiting this week are Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national-security adviser James Jones, and Gulf States envoy Dennis Ross. It’s a full-court press on the Israelis, and the American wish list is long. They want Israel to stop expanding settlements; to stop building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; and for hawks in the government to chill out while the U.S. is negotiating with Iran. And yet, odds are, they’ll come back to Washington empty-handed, for reasons having to do as much with atmospherics as policy: Team Obama just doesn’t have Israel’s full trust.

But there is someone who does — someone who could use a job, someone who argued straightforwardly for a Palestinian state, and yet someone who has the implicit admiration and regard of Israel. President Obama needs a new envoy to the region who can get results — and George W. Bush is his man.

No, he isn’t.

Levey’s basic pitch is that Bush enjoys a far more favorable standing with the Israeli government than the Obama administration, which would therefore give him credibility with the country’s conservative leadership. Since the current U.S. president pressed Israel on settlement growth, and his predecessor didn’t, that’s likely true. But it also points to one of the flaws in the argument: Obama and Bush disagree. It makes the idea of the latter being an effective policy envoy for the prior seem more than a little misguided.

What’s more, while Levey is right about the Israeli government’s responsiveness to George W. Bush, the job description for a U.S. envoy to the Middle East is broader than this.

U.S. stature and credibility in the region is finally on the rise, and sending Bush — a man with a striking lack of international popularity and no diplomatic skills — puts all of that at risk. It’s one of many reasons this will never happen.

In fairness to Levey, he concedes the idea is “just a fantasy,” not a meaningful request to the White House. The point of the Newsweek column, then, is to urge Obama to be more like Bush when it comes to U.S. policy towards Israel.

It’s advice I hope the president ignores.