Could Barack Obama be the American president who makes history by settling the Palestinian/Israel conflict once and for all? He and his closest advisors seem to think so.
And why not? The received wisdom is that the outlines of a settlement have long been apparent: a "two-state solution" similar to what then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered then-Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat in 2000, and what then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
Of course, both Arafat and Abbas refused those offers. What would be different this time? For one: the advent of the 44th president of the United States. Obama has great faith in his powers of persuasion. For another: American presidents have been seen, rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), as favoring Israelis over Palestinians, and showing insufficient sensitivity to the concerns of the "Muslim world." From his speech in Cairo last year to his public thumping of Israel this year, Obama has been sending the message that he is cut from a different cloth.
But here's the problem: If, in this "peace process," Israel makes all the significant concessions, the end result will be two-states - but no solution. Hamas is the 800-pound guerrilla in the room. Obama seldom mentions Hamas - a conspicuous omission. The fact, nonetheless, is that Hamas rules Gaza, one of the two main Palestinian territories. Hamas' leaders "resist" Israel's existence on theological grounds. That means that unless they violate their religious convictions, they cannot accept a two-state solution in which one of those states has Jewish leaders. They have to wage war against it, through terrorism or whatever means seem most promising.
Couldn't Israel strike a deal only with Abbas and his more secular Fatah political faction on the West Bank - and then hope that Gazans also will want peace and the benefits that come with it? Sure, but how would Hamas be dislodged from Gaza? It's true that Hamas came to power through an election more than four years ago. And Hamas might be willing to countenance another election - if it's confident of winning. But it is impossible to imagine Hamas allowing itself to be defeated at the ballot box. The Hamas view, like that of other Islamists, is that democracy is a bus: If it takes you where you want to go, that's fine, but once you're there, it's time to get off.