Realism Weighs on Obama Mideast Peace Efforts

The president travels to Israel, having withstood attacks from conservatives.

March 21, 2013— -- Middle East peace has been slow going for President Obama, as America's relationship with Israel has unfolded under his presidency in fits and starts.

In his first year in office, Obama brought the two sides together in New York, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel while the U.N. General Assembly convened.

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There was some hope for progress after a Bush administration that largely kept its hands off, constrained by the Second Intifada Palestinian uprising for most of George W. Bush's time in office.

Obama hosted Netanyahu, Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for a multilateral summit at the White House in September 2010, but four years into his presidency, he has yet to produce major progress -- or at least a major, Clinton-esque photo-op -- in Middle East peace on which to hang his hat.

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Today, as he meets with Abbas, it appears unlikely Obama will bring the two sides together during this trip.

"He hasn't abandoned the peace process, but he appears to be coming to terms with the reality of it, and acknowledging, at least implicitly, his contribution to getting us to where we are today," said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a hard-line, pro-Israel nonprofit that has leveled withering criticism at Obama and fellow Democrats in TV ads.

As he visits Israel, Obama confronts a new political landscape in his second term.

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The president lost more support among U.S. Jews than among any other demographic group between 2008 and his re-election in 2012, except for white 18-29 year olds. His Jewish support fell 9 percentage points, according to national exit polls.

Still, Obama won re-election despite fierce attacks not only from Pollak's group, but from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who aired TV ads like this one. Despite all the accusations that he's no friend of Israel, and despite the drop-off in support, the president won 69 percent of Jewish voters on Election Day, far outstripping Romney's 30 percent.

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"The calculus is now different," one American Israel activist, who asked not to be named, said. "With the elections both here and in Israel … he's starting to get a handle on the politics around this issue, and the American Jewish politics on this issue, and how to manage them both on a communal level in Congress."

Obama flashed a willingness to defy his pro-Israel opponents in nominating former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as his new secretary of defense this year. Hagel drew sharp criticism from Israeli activists and Republican senators who pilloried his record and past statements, including a comment referring to pro-Israel groups as the "Jewish lobby," opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran, support for talks with Hamas, and opposition to deeming Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group.

Did this signal that Obama has weathered attacks and is no longer constrained by domestic politics? Or is it just another case of Obama's feeling free to anger the pro-Israel right, as he did before his re-election?

Obama met privately last week with a handful of Jewish leaders, reportedly telling them he would not travel to Israel with a "grand peace plan" to offer.

It appears that in the near term -- during this trip, at least -- Obama isn't looking for a sudden leap forward on peace talks. The White House denied a report in Israeli news outlet Yediot Aharonot that the president plans to offer a deal in the next six months, barring progress between the two sides.

But Obama will never again run for office. If he believes that the best path to jumpstarting peace talks involves creating a domestic political mess, then that messiness would no longer endanger his job, and it would no longer outweigh the benefit to his legacy of making progress toward a deal.