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More than any recent president, Barack Obama has had to deal with the cards he has been dealt. His first inauguration was suffused with the crisis swirling the globe and, even before he gives his second address, large parts of his second-term agenda have already been set for him.
Domestic politics over the next year or so will be dominated by more gruelling budget negotiations and a political fight over gun control that Mr Obama could not have predicted on election day. Abroad, his legacy will be shaped by the way he ends the conflict in Afghanistan, his response to the civil war in Syria and whether he strikes a deal with or bombs Iran.
Not everything is set in stone, however. A few hours after his inauguration, Israelis will go to the polls, a coincidence of timing that will inevitably highlight one of the genuine choices that he does have – whether to follow Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and make the Israel-Palestinian peace process a centrepiece of his second term.
As Mr Obama calculates how to use his limited remaining political capital, there are formidable reasons why he might think pursuing the peace process a fool’s errand. Every time he tried to push the issue during his first term, it seemed to backfire on him politically.
On both sides of the conflict, he has unpromising partners. His relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems very likely to be re-elected Israel’s prime minister, has been difficult but the election campaign has provided a broader dose of reality. It has become convenient for American and European supporters of the peace process to blame the stalemate on Mr Netanyahu, but his scepticism is widely shared among Israeli voters.
Even traditional supporters of the peace process have fallen quiet. The opposition Labour party has tried so hard to avoid discussing the issue that it exhibits almost “a sense of shame at being the party of Oslo”, says Natan Sachs, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, referring to the last serious peace talks, in Norway’s capital.
On the other side, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weakened while Hamas is in the ascendant, especially after the recent conflict with Israel which it claimed as a victory. With Syria in turmoil, Jordan’s government looking fragile and the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme still unresolved, regional instability further undercuts the potential for diplomacy. The temptation in the White House to wait for better circumstances will be a powerful one.
Yet, even before his second term began, Mr Obama received a rude lesson about why he cannot ignore the issue. The White House made a point of stressing that the president’s first post-election trip in November was to Asia. Instead, he spent a large chunk of his time in Asia on the phone to the Middle East trying to resolve the Gaza crisis.
If Mr Obama chooses to avoid the peace process, it will cast a long shadow over his pretensions to be restoring American global leadership. It could also expose divisions within his cabinet.
While some pro-Israeli groups have howled disapproval at the nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon, the key figure is likely to be John Kerry at the state department. Friends of Mr Kerry say that he is eager to make the peace process one of his biggest priorities. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had a powerful incentive to be seen as a team player if she wants to stand in 2016. At 69, this is probably Mr Kerry’s last roll of the dice and he, too, is in search of a legacy.
Most importantly, the window is closing. Mr Obama is not the first president to be told the “facts on the ground” of expanding settlements would soon make any deal a practical impossibility. But the surge of rightwing politicians such as Naftali Bennett, who has strong roots with the settler movement and who pronounces the two-state solution already dead, has given the warning particular urgency.
During the election campaign, Mr Obama promised to visit Israel during his second term. If he arrives in Jerusalem having done little to advance the peace process, it would be a powerful statement. Many Israelis and Palestinians alike would conclude that on Mr Obama’s watch, the US gave up on the two-state solution. Even if he does nothing, Israel and the Palestinians will still be a significant part of his legacy.
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