The Obama Administration enters its final 14 months in office with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalating into daily bloodshed. This crisis is taking place to a backdrop of a fatally discredited peace process, a political clock ticking down toward American elections, and an international community awaiting direction and leadership from a White House that is providing neither. More broadly, it is taking place to the backdrop of Israeli policies - including settlement expansion, demolitions, and coercive displacements - that disclose an unmistakable drive to implement a one-state outcome, notwithstanding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's continued (if weak and intermittent) rhetorical support for a two-state solution.
It is now self-evident that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not be achieved on President Obama's watch, nor will meaningful progress towards a peace agreement come from another round of negotiations. In this context, the Obama Administration has three options: walking away, playing it safe, or charting a new course.
"Walking away" means supporting Israel militarily and diplomatically, and doing little else. "Playing it safe" means pursuing only those policies that create little or no friction with the Israeli government - e.g. pursuing conflict management efforts like those seen in recent days, pressing for warmed-over "confidence building measures" and focusing on Palestinian political reform and succession.
Politically, adopting either of these options might be the easy path for the Obama Administration, but doing so would be tantamount to abandoning the two-state solution -- and would cement Obama's legacy as the president who oversaw the death of the two-state solution and the descent of Israel into pariah status. It would also turn Obama into the first president to leave his successor political and diplomatic scorched earth in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, with no good options going forward. Today's violence is a preview of what is in store if a two-state political horizon is not restored: increasing carnage, transformation of a territorial conflict into a religious war, and growing international pressure on and isolation of Israel.
"Charting a new course" means altering the current peacemaking paradigm in order to restore the credibility of the two-state outcome and improve the chances of reaching this two-state outcome in the future. Obama has a clear and promising option for charting such a course: ending the American monopoly over Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
How would this look? To start, the United States should become a genuine partner to other members of the United Nations Security Council, cooperating to formulate and pass - rather than block and veto - resolutions laying down consensus red lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States should support the establishment of an international support group or similar body to lead efforts to revive peace talks, and should empower the existing Middle East Quartet to propose concrete consequences for actions that undermine the viability of the two-state outcome. The United States should welcome efforts by the European Union and countries around the world to implement policies distinguishing between Israel and the Occupied Territories, and join them in doing so. It should welcome a stronger role for faith leaders like the Pope on issues related to Jerusalem and holy sites. It should encourage Arab nations to be more engaged.
The reasons for adopting such an approach are numerous. To start, the United States simply has insufficient resources to continue taking sole responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, given the many competing priorities in the world. America cannot be the world's policeman and, equally, can no longer bear the full burden of trying to shepherd Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. Moreover, even if the Obama Administration wanted to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts today, it lacks any realistic option for doing so -- thanks to Netanyahu's tireless and extremely successful efforts to deplete the Obama Administration's energies, discredit its policies, and deprive it of leverage.
At the same time, the recent Iran nuclear negotiations demonstrated how multilateral energies can be successfully harnessed to achieve a common goal - recalling the fact that the biggest breakthroughs in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Agreement, both resulted from processes in which United States played a supportive, rather than a leading, role.
Finally, conventional wisdom regarding what is politically possible is flat-out wrong. Yes, all presidential candidates will likely oppose or distance themselves from anything significant the Obama Administration might do now on Israel-Palestine, but that doesn't matter. By charting this new course, Obama can leave to the next president an Israel-Palestine peace paradigm that is different from the discredited, failed one in which the United States is mired today. This new paradigm, which would open new possibilities for action and success, need not be embraced by candidates in the heat of election campaigns -- but when the next president enters office, she or he will see that it is, in fact, a gift.
Obama would not be the first president to leave such a gift as a legacy to his successor. It should be recalled that toward the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan took the unprecedented step of opening dialogue with the PLO, paving the way for the Madrid Peace conference during the term of George H.W. Bush, and eventually the Oslo Accords and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. Similarly, Bill Clinton, in the twilight of his presidency, articulated the Clinton Parameters, re-accrediting American leadership and opening the door for George W. Bush's historic embrace of the two-state solution.
Following in the footsteps of Reagan and Clinton -- adopting a new Israeli-Palestinian peace paradigm as a legacy to his successor -- would in no way signal a diminution of Obama's commitment to Israel or a weakening of the bilateral relationship. To the contrary: it would demonstrate Obama's commitment to Israel's security and its viability as a democracy and a Jewish state, both of which are imperiled today by the policies of the Netanyahu government and the imminent loss of the two-state solution.