A lot has been said about Obama and the Middle East by a lot of smart people, but they all fundamentally miss the point: they take the two-state solution for granted.
If Obama has made the deal that he will lay off Gaza in order to win over the Jewish center to his aims, what has not been factored in is the viability of the two-state solution once such a consensus is achieved. The Palestinians are not prepared to accept the pre-67 borders, and if Abbas tries to effect such a deal it will go nowhere with his people. The irony of Netanyahu’s "victory" this week might well be that it destroyed whatever prayer of a chance there might have been that Abbas could pull it off after all.
Obama may or may not personally be committed to a genuine "two states for two peoples" formula, but his Jewish allies represented by J Street are quite committed to it. Noah Pollak of Commentary is pretty close to the mark with his new label of "barely Zionist", and he and Steve Rosen are quite correct in how marginal their influence in Israeli politics is. But here the South Africa analogy is instructive – to the tiny white liberal (and, incidentally, overwhelmingly Jewish) segment of that polity, which was after a very different solution from the centralized democratic state that the ANC demanded once serious negotiations began. Like the South African Liberals, Meretz, Ha’aretz, and their allies such as J Street will have an important role to play in the drama despite their marginality.
Whatever Obama still hopes he might achieve in the way of a two-state solution, he is sharp enough to know that the most he can do in his steps toward a new "peace process" is buy time while he figures out how to truly extricate himself from the conflict. But even so, few if any of his Jewish allies are willing to confront the real stakes involved, that is, what happens when the two-state solution is obviously dead.
What hasn’t ceased to amaze me is the number of very intelligent people who speak of apartheid being "right around the corner", as opposed to having passed them in the night. It must also be remembered that the international community, despite the perfervid neocon imagination, remains as intractably committed to a "two-state solution" as anyone, partly for the reasons I’ve spelled out in my critiques of the international system and what Israel has on it.
This is the tragedy of Israel and its progressives, as it was for South Africa and even Rhodesia – when they could have gotten the favorable deal, they have been too enamored of their own militancy and hubris, but once they need to sue for it, the other side is no longer interested in such a deal, knowing time is on their side.
And so now, thinking that he’s made Obama blink on the settlements, Netanyahu is raising the stakes, with the hawkish Jewish Democrats such as Schumer now turning the screws on Obama. This is a powerful reminder, not least of all to Obama, that he is earning no favors by trying to appease the Israel Lobby. Netanyahu is overplaying his hand if he thinks he can play the Schumer card.
In both his campaign last year and in his strategy against the Republicans most notably in the recent health care debate, Obama is never more brilliant than in tempting his opponent into overplaying their hand. So in short, the biggest mistake that can be made is to take too seriously the official statements and positions of the administration. Whatever can be despaired about the stubbornness of those progressive Jews who still seek a two-state solution, especially those who can be scarcely called Zionists, the drama that continues to unfold must be allowed to take place as a vitally necessary step in the right direction.
There is an additional reason that this must not be opposed, specifically with respect to J Street: Few critics of the Israel Lobby appreciate how much its foundation is built upon an "official" Jewish community which exists with little other mandate than to be Israel’s voice in American politics. After generations, there is simply no other alternative in bringing down this machine than to support the sort of palace coup that J Street is trying to effect. Whatever exactly it is that J Street seeks to tear down, rebuild, or transform, and they have never been very clear on this question, they remain committed to a complete reconstruction of which their predecessors in the "peace camp" decidedly were not. The winning of Jewish hearts and minds to a progressive alternative will be the job of rabbis, not of politicians, but the task of J Street remains a vital precondition to this.