With the departure of the last American combat troops from Iraq, President Barack Obama will tell the nation tonight that he is keeping his pledge to essentially end U.S. involvement in that long and bloody war, and that his administration remains committed to bringing home the 50,000 American troops still there by the end of 2011.
But if concluding the war in Iraq — and, eventually, the more difficult fight in Afghanistan — is a daunting prospect, the difficulty it presents is eclipsed by the challenge Mr. Obama will take up Thursday, one that has vexed presidents going back four decades now: achieving lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be in Washington this week to launch a new round of peace talks that Mr. Obama hopes will yield a solid agreement within a year.
Mr. Obama can already claim a measure of success simply by having managed to get the parties talking directly to each other again. The administration had been working quietly for months to move Israel and the Palestinians from so-called proximity talks, in which each side talked separately to the Americans. But arriving at a point where the parties are willing to address each other's concerns around the same table is hardly a breakthrough. In the past, talks have broken off when the prospects for peace were far better than they are today, and despite the best efforts of previous presidents to coax the two sides toward common ground.
So Mr. Obama, despite the political capital he has built up as an honest broker, will be wading into treacherous waters that have repeatedly brought predecessors to grief, even though the basic elements of any settlement have long been known.
They include Israel's withdrawal to its original 1949 borders, with certain agreed-upon land swaps, and carving out a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War. In exchange for a state on the West Bank, Palestinians would have to give up the right of Arab refugees to return to the lands they lost in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel, and Israel would have to give up many settlements on the West Bank, where some 300,000 Jews presently live.
The third big sticking point in the negotiations will be determining the status of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city, which has a large Arab population, as the capital of their new state, while Israel, which captured the area in 1967, insists it will never again allow Jerusalem to be partitioned.
Resolving these differences has eluded statesmen on both sides for nearly half a century, and by now there are plenty of reasons for skeptics to doubt that Israel and the Palestinians can finally reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the political constraints both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are confronting today are perhaps more daunting than anything they have faced in the past.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to hold together a right-wing coalition that will view concessions — such as an extension of the temporary moratorium on building new settlements in the West Bank that is set to expire Sept. 26 — with extreme suspicion. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to walk away from the talks if settlement construction resumes.
At the same time, the Palestinians are deeply divided between Mr. Abbas' Fatah organization, which controls the Palestinian Authority from its base in the West Bank, and Hamas, a militant Islamic group that rules Gaza and is shunned by the West for its terrorist attacks and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state.
One likely scenario is that Israel and the Palestinians may end up turning to the Americans to offer "bridging proposals" as a way out of their dilemma and to help close the gap on the most contentious issues. But there's no assurance that even with the cool-headed Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as mediators the talks can survive past the Sept. 26 deadline for resuming settlement construction, which is a ticking time bomb that threatens to destroy the process almost before negotiations have even begun.
Thus, even as President Obama hosts Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu at a formal dinner Wednesday night, along with the heads of state of Egypt and Jordan — the only two states that have signed peace treaties with Israel — he must be wondering whether he will have any better luck than his predecessors in helping to finally bring to an end a conflict that has become one of this nation's longest-standing and most intractable foreign policy quandaries.
Editor's note: An early version of this editorial implied that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had refused to meet with Palestinian leaders for direct talks, when that was not the case. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.