Back in 1986 William Quandt, who had served as Jimmy Carter's Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, wrote in his book Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics that presidents have basically five years to work on Middle East peace, provided that they are reelected. In their first term presidents spend the first term acquiring expertise about the area and learning the ropes and their last year running for reelection. In their second term--for those lucky enough to have one--they have the first three years because in their last year they are a lame duck. Quandt based his calculations on his experience in the Carter administration and his academic observations of the Johnson and Nixon-Ford administrations. I agreed with this when I read it and I still do some 26 years later. Obama has already used up his first two of five years. What will he do in his remaining three?
This schedule does not, however, guarantee that the Middle East will be ripe for peacemaking during those two or five years given to each president. This means that presidents must recognize and seize the opportunities when they present themselves. The easy tracks of the Middle East peace process were taken by Presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton. Sadat and Hussein were the Arab leaders who actually wanted to make peace. Although King Hussein was rather coy about it for most of his reign. He needed a viable process on the Palestinian track before he could make peace with Israel. Assad and Arafat were much more difficult leaders to deal with. Arafat was a weak and venal leader who was more comfortable as a resistance leader than as a partner for peace. Assad wanted a peace process as a pathway to Washington after his Soviet patron collapsed in the early 1990s.
Arafat's and Assad's actions in turn helped to destroy the Israeli Center-Left and left the nationalist Right, both secular and religious, in charge of the field in Israel. Arafat put Sharon in power, who was unwilling to negotiate with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen. Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, was fatally weakened by his bungling of the Second Lebanon War. And so in 2008 two weak leaders, Abbas and Olmert, sat down to negotiate with a president who was beyond his five given years. Secretary of State Condi Rice did not have a magic wand and no miracle occurred.
Obama was left with a Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was stronger than Olmert or Ehud Barak, but not interested in peace, at least not peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is foremost interested in maintaining his coalition, which in Israel can best be done by taking no risks. Abbas remained scared of being considered a sellout and traitor by the Palestinians who had never been properly prepared for the concessions required of peace by Arafat. So Netanyahu gave Obama a ten month settlement freeze that was front loaded with lots of construction, was not renewable, and did not apply to Jerusalem. Abbas used the last item as an excuse to avoid negotiations until the final month of the freeze. Nothing has changed nor is likely to change on the Palestinian track during Obama's second term, except for possibly Abbas's retirement from politics and replacement by another Fatah leader who is also intimidated by Hamas.
But much has changed on the Syrian track. The Assads could never make peace with Israel as they needed the conflict as a legitimizing device for their minority Alawite regime. If the Sunnis take over this will not apply. Of course, if those taking over are radical Islamists it won't make any difference. So I advice Obama to monitor developments in the Levant to see what happens until the civil war ends. If he has any of his remaining three years left when the war ends he should send an envoy to feel the new regime out about negotiating a peace treaty after it has had some time to consolidate its reign. If not this should be a task left for his successor, whether it is his vice president, his sccretary of state, or some other Democrat or even a Republican. At least that will restart the clock.
Obama should also consider the following quick review of history. Kissinger's first two separation-of-forces agreements did not prevent Nixon from resigning months later. Ford was not elected in 1976 despite Kissinger's third Middle East peace agreement the previous year. Carter's Middle East peace treaty won him a Nobel Prize (after a quarter century delay) but not a second term or a good memory with most Americans. Reagan had no Middle East agreements and was reelected. Ditto for Clinton and Bush Jr. Bush Sr. took a risk for Middle East peace in 1992 and lost reelection.