AfPak — shorthand for Afghanistan and Pakistan — is President Obama's most urgent foreign policy and national-security priority.
Taliban insurgents with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s over their shoulders walk the streets of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, unchallenged by police or army.
The pro-al-Qaida Taliban insurgency in Pakistan proper has spread to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital of one of the world's eight nuclear powers.
In the panoply of urgent crises, Iran ranks second and could displace AfPak before year's end. Several diplomatic hurdles lie ahead: six-party talks with Iran and the United States at the same table for the first time in 30 years; then, if Tehran doesn't abandon its nuclear ambitions, tougher sanctions that won't be followed by either Russia or China — before Iran moves to the front burner.
But the Middle East remains Obama's magnificent obsession. He believes a Palestinian state is something he can make happen in his first year in office. Jordan's King Abdullah kicked off the list of visitors from the region as an official guest at Blair House across the street from the White House. But no sooner were they in the mansion, which has no bed larger than queen-size, than he and Queen Rania skipped over to the Four Seasons Hotel — and a king-size bed.
For the Jordanian monarch, a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis became increasingly urgent since Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel on April 1. Abdullah has long known that Israel's hardliners dream of turning Jordan, where the population is 65 percent Palestinian, into a Palestinian state and keeping the West Bank as a buffer state with the Jordan River as the final frontier.
For Netanyahu, nothing is less urgent than a Palestinian state. He also knows that, as long as Israel remains in Iran's nuclear crosshairs, Obama is not about to make aid to Israel conditional on the acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
And even if conditional aid to Israel were politically possible in the United States, which it most certainly is not, Jewish settlements in the West Bank — now about 300,000 Jews in 140 settlements — that straddle the region's water aquifer have made it physically impossible to establish a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state.
So George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for a Middle East settlement, will continue to spin his wheels following a road map for a road no longer on the map. Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a bull in his own china shop, agrees with Netanyahu that any commitment previous Israeli governments have made for a Palestinian state is null and void.
The next Middle East leader into the White House for a tete-a-tete with Obama will be Hosni Mubarak, who has led Egypt since President Anwar Sadat's assassination three decades ago.
But poverty (per-capita income is $1,250), coupled with demography (81 million people, up from 3 million when Napoleon invaded in 1798), and the need to create almost 1 million new jobs a year have made Mubarak's succession one of the least desirable positions in the Middle East. Undeterred, his son Gamal is grooming himself for the succession.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate whose West Bank fiefdom is losing ground daily to the radicals and extremists of Hamas, has little credibility left. As Obama, like his predecessors since the Camp David Accords, concludes that his vision of a Palestinian state in the West Bank is more mirage than reality, he will have to focus on the next big challenge in the region: Iran's nuclear facilities and the determination of the Netanyahu-Lieberman tandem to bomb them into a postponement of whatever plans the mullahs have for a nuclear capability.
For Israel's new hard-line government, Iran's theocracy is Nazi Germany redux. And as long as that existential threat to Jews hangs over the region, there is no reason Israel should make concessions to the Palestinians, now increasingly influenced by Hamas, one of Iran's surrogates, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iranian television news was not reassuring. It showed Iran's Revolutionary Guards disassembling and reassembling G3 infantry rifles — with their feet, blindfolded, in 20 seconds, according to the reporter.
And a bellicose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a U.N. conference designed to combat racism, called Israel "a cruel and repressive racist regime," provoking a mass exit of diplomats from the 23 European nations attending the conference. The United States and a half-dozen other European nations had already boycotted the Iranian firebrand's talk.
Palestinian and other Middle Eastern movers and shakers behind the scenes have been saying the two-state solution effectively consigns Palestinians to perpetual neo-colonial poverty. And the movement for a one-state solution for Palestine has been gathering momentum behind the scenes.
"One-staters" now argue it is better for Palestinians to be poor, marginalized ,and discriminated-against citizens of a post-industrialized, wealthy, democratic state — Israel — with possibility of advancement within a democracy, than being the stalemated citizens of an undeveloped Third World state led by a tyrannical elite — the Palestine Liberation Organization — as their fellow Arab citizens find themselves in the rest of the Arab world.
Lama Abu-Odeh, a Palestinian-American professor and author teaching at Georgetown University, said, "The demand for citizenship in the state of Israel provides a golden opportunity for Palestinians to make the PLO (and Palestinian Authority) historically redundant and through the discourse of citizenship lay claim directly to the wealth they produce for the Israeli state."
There is nothing more disarming of Israel, Abu-Odeh wrote, "than the Palestinians who scream, 'We want to be citizens of the state that governs our lives, taxes our wealth and annexes our land and gives nothing in return.'"
The legions of experts who have staked their careers on a two-state solution cannot switch gears suddenly. But it would behoove them to pay close attention to the one-state advocates now postulating below the radar.
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