President-elect Obama's choices for his national security team suggest that will he adopt a gradual and cautious posture toward changes of course in foreign policy. One arena in which he would be well-advised to embrace an early proactive engagement, however, is U.S.-Israeli relations. Until its very waning days the Bush administration treated this relationship with what it no doubt perceived to be "benign neglect," ignoring the Palestinians and offering no suggestions to or critiques of Israel's Kadima government. The result has been a totally moribund peace process and an exacerbation of instability throughout the Middle East.
The situation needs saving badly, and a solution will not come quickly or easily. Much time and effort will have to be spent working back to the point at which the peace process stalled eight years ago, so even minimal forward motion toward genuine peace is a distant prospect. If the new administration begins work on day one, there is some small hope that progress could be achieved in a second term.
Unfortunately, U.S.-Israeli relations is an area in which the President-elect's disposition toward caution might be highly intensified, even, perhaps, to the point of paralysis. Throughout the election campaign, relations between Obama and some elements of the American Jewish community remained strained. Questions about Obama's past associations and their associations played to visceral fears of anti-Semitism. Liberal Israelis are excited about Obama's election and look toward a renewed and robust U.S. effort in support of a two-state solution. They imagine a revived commitment to bilateral policy-implementation with the Palestinian Authority and an opposition to ultra-orthodox settlers who impede plans for Palestinian sovereignty. Obama may be reluctant to take even steps far short of such as these, however, for fear that any moves in support of Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by American Jews as confirmation of their darkest suspicions, unleashing a political firestorm that will impede reelection hopes in 2012.
One can only hope that this latter scenario will not come to pass, and that Obama's Israel policy will more closely approximate the hopes of liberal Israelis than the inertia which might appease suspicious American Jews. One effective measure that Obama might take in circumventing the political problems he faces at home is to delegate the task of Arab-Israeli peace to a trusted and capable proxy. The natural choice in this regard would be former president Bill Clinton. Clinton came closest of any outside intermediary toward brokering a stable two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, and the agreement to which he brought Yassir Arafat and Ehud Barak outlines the basic parameters of what is most likely the best achievable deal for all sides.
If Clinton were made minister plenipotentiary for Mideast peace, with his own staff and budget (under the supervision of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), the sheer prestige, credibility, and celebrity power that he brought to the table might go a long way toward jump-starting the peace process again. According to his own memoirs, the failure to reach a long-term resolution in Israel-Palestine is one of the deepest regrets Clinton harbors concerning his own legacy, thus in Clinton's surrogacy Obama could harness not only talent and intellect but a haunted yearning for redemption. Finally, the credibility that Clinton enjoys with all segments of the U.S. population would buy the Obama administration the political cover it needs to pursue a robust and proactive Israel policy.
Whether or not to delegate U.S.-Israel policy to a surrogate is a tactical question to which there are many possible answers. The larger strategic issue leaves no room for doubt, however. If Obama hopes to enhance the global position or preserve the domestic security of the U.S., he can not treat U.S.-Israel relations with the same degree of neglect as his predecessor.