The spreading Arab Revolution of the Winter of 2011 has effectively shut down whatever chances there are of an effective peace process in the remainder of Obama's first term. There are two tracks to the peace process, the Palestinian and the Syrian, let us examine in turn how each is affected by the Revolution.
The split between Fatah and Hamas has effectively blocked the Palestinian track from the Palestinian side since the summer of 2007, if not before. The two groups have been in competition for the leadership of the Palestinian people since the founding of Hamas in early 1988. Hamas helped to ensure that Arafat did not make the type of concessions on refugees and Jerusalem to Barak at Camp David in July 2000 that would have been necessary for a peace deal. Hamas, partly as the beneficiary of a protest vote, won the Palestinian internal elections in January 2006. This and the fighting in the summer of 2006 in Gaza and Lebanon prevented any resumption of the peace process that year. In summer 2007 Hamas carried out an anti-PA coup d'etat in Gaza splitting the Palestinian territories. Until this split is ended by either a sufficient political weakening of one of the two parties or a unified leadership, the Palestinians will be unable to negotiate effectively with Israel. Israel will simply be unwilling to make the far-reaching concessions necessary to match Palestinian concessions in the areas of Jerusalem and borders.
The Likud coalition elected to power in the winter of 2009 was also a stumbling block to peace. Netanyahu is simply unable to conclude an agreement that ends the conflict with the Palestinians. This is because of Likud ideology, the eminence grise of his own 101-year old father who hovers over him mentally like a Dickensian ghost, and the threat of Avigdor Leiberman seizing control of the leadership of the Israeli Right from the Likud.
Netanyahu possibly could have been able to conclude a historic agreement with Syria, if both Damascus and Washington been willing. But the Jewish peace lobby in the U.S. led by J Street is fixated on the Palestinian track. Obama had his hands very full during his first term with domestic matters like the economy and health care and two wars in the Middle East. (Go to Realistic Dove for a early 2009 guest post by me arguing precisely this.) So he made a half-hearted effort at the Palestinian track in 2010 and left it at that.
Egypt has scheduled elections for six months from now. Until those elections have been held and Jerusalem has a sense of the new leadership in Cairo, it will be unwilling to enter into any serious negotiations entailing the prospect of further territorial concessions. Syria this week became the latest victim or beneficiary of the Arab Revolution that like a slow plague is killing off the region's dictatorships. Bashar al-Assad will not enter into any negotiations until he has put down the revolution in his country or it has put him down. His father ended a perceived threat to the regime by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 with a massacre in Hama that killed between 10,000 and 20,000. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree!
In 1980 former National Security Council Middle East advisor William Quandt published his account of the Carter administration's Middle East diplomacy, Camp David (the Brookings Institution/UC Press). The introductory chapter laid out the timetable for presidential diplomacy in the Middle East based on a combination of the experience of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations and a knowledge of the political cycle in Washington. Quandt claimed that a president spends his first year learning the ropes. The next two years he has available for diplomacy and by the final year he is obsessed with reelection and unwilling to risk offending the Jewish community. If reelected, he then has his first three years available for diplomacy before he becomes a lame duck. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all proved the validity of this analysis. George Bush sr. convened the Madrid Conference at the end of October 1991 that inaugurated the Washington Talks. But he was too weak in 1992 and Arafat too strong for these talks to go anywhere. Clinton then did not devote himself to Middle East diplomacy until his final year in office, by which time it was too late and he had too little leverage with the various parties. Bush jr. then made a half-hearted effort at diplomacy to appease Tony Blair and King Hussein in 2003, before making another half-hearted attempt in 2007 to satisfy Condi Rice.
Expect the Arab Revolution to prevent any real movement on the peace process in 2011 and the reelection campaign to prevent any real progress in 2012. Lately, Israeli government coalitions have had about a three year lifespan, so Netanyahu's time will probably run out in late 2011 or early 2012. By the time a new Israeli government is up and running the 2012 election will be well underway. This is why presidents must seize their opportunities when presented with them! As Nixon did in October 1973, and Bush sr. did in 1991.