Israel had to end its bombardment of Gaza by the January 20 "hope and change deadline," as Jon Stewart had predicted.
President Obama appointed former Senator Mitchell as his envoy for Israel/Palestine diplomacy. It is widely perceived that Mitchell will be fair - you might think that this would be an obvious requirement, but in the recent history of U.S. policy, it would be an innovation.
As the ADL's Abraham Foxman put it:
"Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed...But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'even handed'...So I'm concerned...I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."
MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum explained the opposition of right-wing groups to the appointment of Mitchell this way:
[These] groups "tend to favor the kind of mediator with the least prospects of success ... Mitchell worries them because he was so successful in Northern Ireland, a success that was built on his persistence and his utterly impartiality ... and a deal means Israeli concessions which they have never favored. The stronger the candidate for envoy or mediator - the more of an honest broker he or she would be - the more uncomfortable they are."
And as of this writing, Dennis Ross hasn't been appointed to any position at all. Ross, faulted by fellow U.S. officials for seeking permission from Israel before taking any initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace in the Clinton Administration, is still rumored to be on track for a senior position on Iran. Ross has claimed that a U.S. military strike on Iran is "a feasible option" and called for the U.S. to pursue blockading Iran's gas imports, an act of war. Having someone with responsibility for U.S. Iran policy pushing the idea that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran - isn't the accusation of "outside agitators" often in the mouths of those who would ignore the just grievances of the locals? - would undermine Mitchell's mission.
So far, so good: there is some kind of a window for change. But it is not enough to have an impartial mediator. The parameters of U.S. policy have to change, or Mitchell will fail, even if he has the best intentions.
President Obama should clearly repudiate the Bush Administration's policy of blockading Gaza. Obama has already called for Gaza's borders to be opened to humanitarian aid and commercial goods as part of the ceasefire, which is just common sense, since the blockade is also an act of war. But for reconstruction to proceed effectively, for Gaza's civilians to get access to the goods and services they need to stay alive, it has to be clear that the blockade is over, and will not be re-imposed to punish civilians for events and policies over which they have no control.
President Obama should end the policy of trying to isolate Hamas. The "Obama Doctrine" - the U.S. can talk to anyone - needs to be applied here. If we can talk to Iran and Syria and the Taliban - and we can - we can talk to Hamas. You don't have to love Hamas to recognize the reality that they are a power on the ground, with the ability to be decisively helpful or harmful to peace, and a track record of doing both, depending on external circumstances. A durable accord between Israel and Palestine will require that Hamas be represented by some means, for example through a Palestinian national unity government, or by a side accord between Fatah and Hamas. The policy of isolation pushes the prospect of peace away - arguably, its intent.
President Obama should make clear that when the U.S. says that Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank has to stop, the U.S. intends to be taken seriously. The right-wing in Israel has become accustomed to the idea that the settlement activity can continue regardless of what agreements Israel makes with the U.S. It is extremely unlikely that U.S. diplomacy can succeed if this pattern is not broken.
Finally, President Obama should make clear that when the U.S. provides Israel with weapons, U.S. law is going to be enforced, requiring that those weapons only be used for self-defense. If we want the Israeli government to seriously pursue peace, the other "option" - endless war - has to be taken off the table.
The time to make these policy changes is now, before President Obama's political capital is dissipated in another round of U.S. diplomacy that fails because it is not serious. And it is unlikely that U.S. policy will change in the ways needed unless there is a surge in pressure to do so.
It's much easier to get people to pay attention when there is an upsurge of violence. Can we get people to take action when the policies are being set that will determine whether there will be peace or another upsurge in violence in the future?
Jewish Voice for Peace and Just Foreign Policy have launched a campaign asking Americans to urge President Obama to change the direction of U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. You can add your voice here.