Democrats made huge gains this election, largely because voters rejected the administrations policy in Iraq. But even before the electorate took its frustration over the war out on the presidents party, Congress recognized the need for a new direction. In March, House Republicansled by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and supported by such senior GOP figures as Sen. John Warner (R-Va.)asked James Baker and Lee Hamilton to form the Iraq Study Group. The group, which is expected to offer policy recommendations within the next few weeks, was widely understood to offer the White House an opportunity to chart a new course in Iraq without having to admit its previous policies were wrong.
So far, so good. But the much-neglected Israeli-Arab conflictin particular the Israel-Palestine conflictis as central to Middle East stability as the Iraq war is. The United States cant truly address the latter without taking on the former, too. A regional policy makeover that fails to make these connections is unlikely to create the tipping point that will move the Middle East from extremism towards moderation.
Given the presidents lackluster performance on this front over the last six years, some external impetus is clearly needed. The new Democratic congressional leadership has a responsibility to provide that impetus. They also have a handy tool with which to do soif only they will use it.
Of course, both policy and politics have to be considered here. And politically, this proposal sounds counter-intuitive: If anything, the new Democratic Congress will be tempted to run to the presidents right on the Israeli-Arab conflict, as Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House International Relations Committee, did this summer when he pledged to block the aid the president had promised Lebanon until Beirut agreed to allow international troops to patrol the Syrian border.
Even when Democrats belatedly discovered their voice on Iraq this election, most conspicuously failed to connect the war to a broader problem: our misguided regional policy that is urgently in need of reform. Democrats will need to be convinced that expanding the Baker-Hamilton Commission mandate to include Israel-Palestine would not only serve Americas national-security interests and benefit our ally, Israel, but also that such a move wouldnt be a political exercise in self-flagellation.
But lets start by considering the American interest. It seems blindingly obvious to observe that the unresolved, permanently visible Israeli-Palestinian conflict fans the flames of jihadism across the region. Yet this connection is rarely taken seriously, either as a matter of policy or in the public debate. The reluctance to do so is fed by the notion that they hate us for what we are. This mistaken assumption creates a monolithic them that doesnt really exist (the fights within political Islam are often the fiercest). It also denies very real grievances that provoke anger and create fertile recruitment ground for radicals.
For Sunni al-Qaedists and Shiite Ahmedinajists alike, the Palestinian cause is a central rallying cry. Although extremists exploit the issue, it resonates far beyond the madrassa or the militia training camp. Of course, solving this conflict is not a panacea; not all hatred would instantly evaporate. But progress on the Israel-Palestine issue could be decisive in stabilizing the Middle East.
A reenergized political effort on the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli front would also dramatically wrong-foot Americas adversaries in the region. Such a move would answer the calls of Americas moderate Arab allies and represent a first step towards repairing our damaged regional credibility. Indeed, its hard to see how the alliances necessary to attempt progress on Iraq and Iran can even be constructed without such reengagement and investment of political capital.
Unfortunately, however, the administration has wandered so far off course that nothing short of a policy reboot will work. On one Mideast journey during the Lebanon crisis this summer, Secretary Rice was forced to return to Washington in embarrassing dejectionshe was unwelcome in any regional capital outside Jerusalem. Her return visit last month was derided in the Israeli and Arab press alike as promising little and achieving even less. Envoys have been dispatched sporadically (Gen. Anthony Zinni, Amb. John Wolf) but to little effect. Attempts to advance economic development have failed because they havent been matched with a political framework. The core issues of the conflictland, borders, Jerusalem, security cooperationwere abandoned as too difficult and have now been exacerbated on the ground. The administrations repeated failure to take any initiativewhen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas replaced Yassir Arafat, when the Saudis introduced their peace plan, when Ehud Olmert was elected on a platform of territorial withdrawal, when the Syrians called for a return to peace talksill-served both American and Israeli interests. Hence, the need for a commission.
The implications of such a commission for Israel will weigh heavily on Democrats for legitimate reasons of substance and of domestic politics. It is these considerations that create the temptation to move rightwards of the administration on this issue. However, succumbing to that temptation could be both bad policy and bad politics.
Recently, there has been a tendency to conflate the neoconservative agenda with the Israeli interest. This is both wrong-headed and disastrous for Israels predicament. There is a narrative that links America and Israels common interests that is not of neoconservative design. The Democratic Congress needs to discover that narrative.
During the election campaign, some Democrats with Jewish constituencies did make the connection by noting that the Iraq war strengthens jihadists and emboldens Iran. Now, theres a second sentence that needs to be articulated: American disengagement from the peace process and from its active mediating role has also been bad for Israel.
To guarantee its future as a secure Jewish and democratic state, Israel needs agreed and recognized borders. The vast majority of Israelis understand this, and the precedent was set in evacuating Gaza. Israel is now groping for a formula to part ways with the West Bank (minus the agreed mutual modifications to 1967 line), and Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. But rather than help smooth this difficult transition, the United States merely appears uninterested.
For Democratic legislators to make this argument and to encourage a policy rethink via a Baker-Hamilton study group, the politics will also have to add up. That calculation isnt so simple. In recent years, the GOP has made a bold play to peel off Jewish supporters and donors by citing President Bushs strong support for Israel. Democrats may worry that establishing a commission to assess those policies might advance this GOP effort.
No doubt it will on the margins. But anecdotal and polling evidence suggest that the silent majority of the Jewish community is hungry for a progressive move to renew peace efforts and hope: Democrats would likely be surprised at just how favorably much of their Jewish base would respond to a new direction. This path also offers the chance to prevent a looming rift between the Democratic Jewish base and the progressive foreign policy community. A pro-peace process Democratic voice that is at the same time firmly pro-Israel (remember President Clinton?) could help prevent a schism between these two key constituencies. So far, however, Democrats have allowed Republicans to out-pro-Israel them, by failing to challenge a neocon orthodoxy that ultimately damages Israel and the United States. A large part of the pro-Israel community appears ready for this message.
Some may object to James Baker co-chairing the efforthis tough stand towards Israels settlement policy didnt earn him many fans. But he is the Republican inheritance of the bipartisan study group, has credibility in the region, and did, after all, bring the then-Likud-Shamir Israeli government to the Madrid Peace Conference.
So, a remandated Baker-Hamilton Study group on the Middle East peace process could offer the administration a face-saving way to change course. Just as the Iraq Study Group was given the mandate to talk to anyone and everyone it chose, so, too, should the Baker-Hamilton commission have the freedom to gather information from all experts and interested partiesincluding those that the White House currently deems to be beyond the conversational pale.
Once the commission has gathered all the facts, it would provide new policy options to the administration, just as it will do on Iraq. While its impossible to say what such a commission would recommend, we know enough to hazard a pretty good guess. As secretary of state, Baker believed in shuttle diplomacy and recently said the administration should talk to Syria. Lee Hamilton signed a recent call by the International Crisis Group for urgent action towards a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We can expect, then, that the commission will engage in a fundamental reassessment of the administrations existing policy. Is the Middle East Roadmap still salvageable, or is a new framework necessary? Should the Quartet mechanism (the United States, European Union, the U.N. Secretary Generals representative, and Russia) be further empowered to monitor and cajole the parties? Would Palestinians, led by Hamas or Fatah or a combination of the two, be better tested by setting security rather than declarative targets? Is there a need to publicly issue clear parameters for an endgame peace arrangement, to which the various parties would be expected to respond? The commission would address all these questions.
A full U.S. reengagement would likely need to include, in parallel, the political issues of land, borders, demilitarization and settlements, along with immediate on-the-ground needs (especially regarding the Palestinians) of humanitarian assistance, economic rehabilitation and a mutually respected ceasefire. The allied Arab states could be asked to play an active supporting roleincluding early gestures of public diplomacy towards Israel, providing the Israeli government with both vital assurances and an important marketing tool. An envoy to lead the bold initiative would almost certainly be needed, and former World Bank chair James Wolfensohn (who briefly played this role during disengagement) might be recalled with a new mandate.
Democrats are already looking ahead to 2009, when they may return to the White House. If they do, theyre going to need a Middle East policy that is sounder than President Bushs and can garner enough political support to succeed. That wont be easy. But handing the Middle East brief to a bipartisan commission is perhaps the least-risky way to begin that effort.
Moreover, the region cannot wait until 2009. Israels wounded Olmert government needs help to navigate its way back to a peace process without which it has little reason to be in office. And, especially after Hizbollahs success this summer, the allied Arab states need to prove to their people that a moderate, U.S.-friendly approach can deliver results on the Palestinian issue. Syria needs a practical alternative to its alliance with Iran and its unhelpful meddling in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. And the Palestinians themselves desperately need a clear signal that non-violent negotiations can secure something more than an endless armed struggle, a reverse is the lesson of recent years. We all need to understand that political Islamists are not cut from the same cloth. By lumping them together, we pursue policies that strengthen the al-Qaedists and other anti-democratic forces. Of course, there is no guarantee that President Bush would follow such a study groups advice. But Congress would have done its duty and tried; and Americans, the region and the world would take note. And today, that, too, is something.