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Mr. President, take Mideast heat or get out of the kitchen

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
  • Aaron Miller: White House has no strategy for peace or understanding of players
  • Miller lists lessons for Obama: Curb your enthusiasm; deeds matter more
  • Miller: Settlements a side issue: Borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem key
  • He says prepare to take heat from all sides. If you can't, don't get involved

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democrat administrations. His new book, "Can America Have Another Great President?" will be published by Bantam Books.

Washington, D.C. (CNN) -- When Barack Obama receives his Nobel Peace Prize next month in Oslo, Norway, one thing seems clear: It won't be in recognition of his skill in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For much of the past year, the administration has wandered around the not-so-Holy Land without clear direction, an accurate understanding of Israelis and Palestinians, or an effective strategy.

But all is not lost. The past 10 months could be, to use the president's words, a teachable moment, and with the right lessons learned, maybe, just maybe, the president could get back on track.

The lessons:

Keep your enthusiasm under control: In January, President Obama came out harder, faster and louder on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking than any of his predecessors. The speech in Cairo, Egypt, and his ultimatum to the Israelis on freezing settlements seemed to suggest that this president was going to be tough and fair. No more business as usual.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the political laws of gravity that make getting anything done on Arab-Israeli diplomacy very hard kicked in, dragging down the president's hopes and words.

In a mere 10 months, Israel said "no" to a comprehensive freeze, the Arabs said "no" to normalization with Israel, and the Palestinians said "no" to negotiations with Israel.

If you want to fight with the locals, particularly the Israelis, fight over an issue that matters.
--Aaron David Miller, Woodrow Wilson Center

In the process, the president seemed to alienate just about everyone -- in record time. Words matter; deeds matter more, Mr. President. From now on, better to run silent but deep.

Keep your eye on the ball: The main event in the Arab-Israeli arena is an agreement on borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem, not a settlements freeze.

If you can resolve the territorial and borders issue, the settlements problem will disappear. Borders will be agreed and sovereignty resolved.

That way you don't have to negotiate twice with the Israelis and run into a nickel-and-dime problem over this settlement or that, which so badly alienated the Palestinians.

Indeed, a freeze proved to be a trap for the administration. By initially setting the bar so high at a total freeze, what the president actually got -- a significant partial freeze -- could only disappoint.

To crow about it, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in Morocco recently -- regardless of the unprecedented nature of the agreement -- only made the Palestinians and the United States look weak and foolish.

Next time around, Mr. President, if you want to fight with the locals, particularly the Israelis, fight over an issue that really matters.

The big issues that lie at the heart of the conflict are an agreement on land and identity, including what happens to Jerusalem and to refugees, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

By focusing on these issues, at the end of the day the fight will produce something truly consequential: a success for America, Israel and the Arabs in peacemaking.

Whether you put a plan on the table or choose to focus on one of the core issues such as borders first, the focus must be on a peace agreement, no matter how hard it may be to imagine right now.

Stay the course or don't start: The chances right now of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the big issues are slim to none.

America is facing a marathon slog, a thousand days of excruciatingly painful diplomacy, which offers no easy prospect of success. And yet Arab-Israeli peace is critically important to U.S. national interests.

So, Mr. President, before you embark on another round of diplomacy, ask yourself one question: Am I prepared to be tough and reassuring, cracking heads when required -- and it will be required -- and to take heat from Israel, the Arabs and the pro-Israeli community in the United States? If the answer is yes, go for it; if the answer is no, then don't bother. Find another conflict to mediate.

Because without a strong, steady serious strategy, your next foray into the wonderful world of Arab-Israeli diplomacy may prove to be even more feckless and embarrassing than the last.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.