Mideast peace: the problem Obama chose

Nearly 40 years ago, I spent time with the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, one of the 20th century’s most formidable intellectual journalists.

Like many naturally contentious men possessed of restlessly great minds, he could be spectacularly wrong, but his firsthand experience of the world was vast, and he had a politician’s gift for aphoristic profundity. He patiently explained to me, for example, that all the worst international controversies could be divided into “problems” and “situations.” The former, he said, had “solutions”; the latter, “outcomes.”

Among the situations to which no satisfactory resolution could be devised were three conflicts that, in those days, always were preceded by the adjective “intractable”: South Africa, where apartheid seemed unshakably entrenched; Northern Ireland, where violence waxed and waned as if part of an immutable natural cycle; and the Middle East.

O’Brien’s analysis grew out of what many call “tragic wisdom.” Its apprehension is a signpost, I think, on the road to intellectual maturity, but its peril is a temptation to confuse realism with passivity. Watching the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington this week, and listening to the ensuing — generally wary — commentary, it occurred to me that only this long conflict remains of O’Brien’s insoluble situations.

So much for realistic pessimism.

The resumption of these talks now also tells us something vital about the way Barack Obama conceives his presidency. The great recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the unavoidable problems he inherited; more instructive are the problems he’s chosen for himself. Domestically, he engaged the one issue that has frustrated presidents since Franklin Roosevelt — and pushed it to a result. Peace in the Middle East is a problem that has eluded every chief executive since 1948. Most took it on, if at all, late in their terms or when pushed to do so by the outbreak of open warfare.

Obama appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East within 48 hours of taking office. It was a shrewd and significant choice on a number of levels. As President Clinton’s special representative, Mitchell brokered the agreements and established the framework that ultimately produced the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. It was a long and arduous process requiring an exquisite combination of toughness, tenacity and patience — all of which will be required if the scheduled biweekly talks between Israel and the Palestinian leaders are to reach agreement in the next year.

There’s an interesting historical sequence here. Northern Ireland’s militant republican leaders identified closely with the struggle against apartheid. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams deeply admired Nelson Mandela and was inspired by his example. To an extent seldom credited sufficiently, the breadth of spirit Mandela demonstrated toward white South Africans helped lay the groundwork for an end to violence stretching back 800 years in Ireland.

Mitchell is a visible and experiential link to that once seemingly impossible event. You could see that, and understand more of why Obama chose him, in his responses to questions about the Middle East process.

He is, for instance, not likely to forgo the good for the perfect — rather like Obama on healthcare. As Mitchell told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the 1998 Good Friday agreement, itself four years in the making, did not produce a final political settlement until 2007.

“It was a political agreement which represented the best that could be achieved at that time,” he said, an opportunity to achieve “peace and stability.”

As he pointed out to other questioners who wondered why he was willing to sit at a table with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland but not Hamas now, the Irish republicans “didn’t participate in the talks until 16 months after they began, and only when they accepted the Mitchell principles, which call for a renunciation of violence, a willingness to participate through democratic means and to accept the result of the agreement and not to try to change it by force.”

In Obama, he has a president even more willing to put himself directly on the line for an agreement than Clinton was in Northern Ireland — a chief executive seemingly willing to risk his record for audacious hope.

On the other hand, while nothing but jobs and the economy may matter in 2012, healthcare and Middle East peace might be something on which to run.