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As Israel Goes Deeper into Syria, an Opportunity for Obama Arises

As Iran’s involvement in Syria deepens, Israel’s stake in the war to its north is growing. Iran will do what it can to increase cooperation between Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, and continues to build Hezbollah’s combat capacity. The chaos in Syria, with troops and weapons moving rapidly across the country, provides an ideal environment for putting powerful weapons under Hezbollah’s control.

With Al-Qaeda linked jihadis in the opposition, and Iran and Hezbollah supporting the government, Israel has much to fear and little to hope as the Syria war grinds on. In some ways, Syria is turning into Israel’s ultimate nightmare: WMDs, terrorists and arch-enemy Iran are all mixed up in it together, and there is not much Israel can do to shape events.

President Obama now holds more cards than any American President in a long time: between the nightmare in Syria and the threat in Iran, Israel has never needed support from allies more than it does now. Some flexibility from Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians in exchange for effective American support in these scary times is the kind of bargain Israeli and U.S. diplomats should be looking at now. Much depends on whether the Americans are willing to put enough real support on the table and whether the Israelis on their side can find a way to make concessions on the West Bank that give the U.S. President an incentive to help.

The balance of power in U.S.-Israeli relations is a funny thing. Generally, U.S. presidents can’t twist Israel’s arm very hard because Congress will limit an administration’s effort to cut Israel’s aid or otherwise impose sanctions on it. (For the conspiracy theorists among us, and they are rife on this subject, pro-Israel sentiment in Congress overwhelmingly reflects non-Jewish public opinion rather than “Jewish lobby” power.) On the other hand, while Israel’s American supporters can often block presidential action against the Jewish state, the nature of the American constitutional system means that Congress can’t easily force presidents to take positive action on Israel’s behalf. Right now, that gives President Obama the upper hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs help with Syria and he needs help with Iran, and only President Obama can deliver that help. Given the gravity of the situations in Syria and Iran, Israel’s prime minister can probably sell West Bank concessions to security minded voters as a bitter pill that must be swallowed to get the Americans on board.

Bad blood is one thing, national interests are something else. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu haven’t gotten along well in the past, but arguably they didn’t really need to. Now, with rising instability in the Middle East focusing their minds, and the Iranian issue moving closer to some kind of definitive moment, the calculus may have changed. The shape of a grand bargain is out there: Israel makes enough concessions on the Palestinian issue to give the Obama administration another chance to get a credible peace process going and the Obama administration gives Israel the support it really needs in the regional crisis.

It is relatively easy to see the outline of an agreement, harder to fill in the details. Can Obama and his new secretary of state use this opportunity to relaunch a credible peace process? Will the Sunni Arab states (if anything more eager than Israel or America to see Iran’s claws clipped) work effectively to clear the way for renewed PA-Israel negotiations despite the support in some quarters for Hamas? Can Netanyahu deliver enough on Israel’s side to satisfy the President—and is the President ready to respond with the kind of commitments and guarantees that would induce Netanyahu to go farther than he has before?

One grim reality to keep in mind: American presidents classically get too ambitious in peace negotiations. Everybody wants the big trophy — a final, definitive agreement that ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. This is almost certainly out of reach. If this White House repeats Bill Clinton’s costly mistake, and goes for broke on a final solution rather than focusing on developing a diplomatic framework within which steady and solid progress can be made, this opportunity like so many others in Middle Eastern history, is likely to be lost.

Much of the time, Middle East diplomacy is dull: a lot of talk and not much change. The next few weeks could break the mold. President Obama now has his best opportunity to do something constructive in the region since his first peace initiative went down in flames back in 2009. For the first time in four years he has a real opportunity; let’s hope he makes the most of it.

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