Julian E Zeizler and Melissa Lerner: Obama can succeed in Mideast

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. Melissa Lerner graduated this spring with highest honors from Princeton, where she completed a senior thesis about presidential leadership and the Arab-Israeli conflict.]

At a time when the Obama administration is dealing with a barely stable economy while trying to address long-term health care, two wars, the environment and the threat of terrorism, many ask whether it is wise for President Obama to try to resolve a problem that has frustrated so many presidents before him.

With the latest events in Iran, there is even more reason for skepticism that progress towards Arab-Israeli peace is possible. Despite conventional wisdom, when presidents have become personally active in shaping American policy in the region and resolved to make the Mideast conflict a top priority, they've often succeeded in improving Arab-Israeli relations. Jimmy Carter oversaw the Camp David Accords, which resulted in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty that secured calm between the two countries for three decades.

George H.W. Bush brought all the key parties to the Madrid Conference in October 1991, which in turn accelerated substantive peace negotiations. Under President Clinton, these negotiations led Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to agree to the Oslo Accords in 1993, a framework for improved relations. The following year, the Jordanians and Israelis signed a peace treaty.

Since then progress has been halting. Clinton almost helped to achieve another breakthrough in 2000, but the negotiations fell apart when Arafat walked away from one of the most comprehensive deals thus far.

When President George W. Bush was in office, relations between the Israelis and Palestinians deteriorated. Bush's warm approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a"man of peace" and his reluctance to put pressure on the Israeli leader strengthened conservative voices in Israel. After Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 despite its radical positions and endorsement of violence, progress seemed impossible.

But today, under the surface, there are signs of hope. During his first term in the late 1990s, then-President Netanyahu learned firsthand the ramifications of failing to cooperate with an American president when Ehud Barak unseated him in 1999 with Clinton's blessing....

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