Viewpoint: Obama Should Send Bush to Mideast

On Sunday, George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East envoy, arrived in Israel to confer with its leaders. Also visiting this week are Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national-security adviser James Jones, and Gulf States envoy Dennis Ross. It's a full-court press on the Israelis, and the American wish list is long. They want Israel to stop expanding settlements; to stop building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; and for hawks in the government to chill out while the U.S. is negotiating with Iran. And yet, odds are, they'll come back to Washington empty-handed, for reasons having to do as much with atmospherics as policy: Team Obama just doesn't have Israel's full trust.

But there is someone who does—someone who could use a job, someone who argued straightforwardly for a Palestinian state, and yet someone who has the implicit admiration and regard of Israel. President Obama needs a new envoy to the region who can get results—and George W. Bush is his man.

Indulge me for a moment. Obama has ruffled feathers in Israel by calling for a halt to settlement growth and talking openly about an equitable fate for East Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. He has elicited deeply felt unease about how much the American president can be trusted to safeguard Israel's basic security.

Obama claims that the peace process is an essential plank of his program for the region, but it will be impossible to make progress if he can't convince Israel to defer to American leadership. In the history of U.S.-Israel relations, probably no president has earned adoration and unequivocal trust from Israel like Bush. (An Israeli diplomat once told me that the former president gave a speech at the U.N. during his second term that attracted so many adoring Israeli diplomats that even the deputy U.N. ambassador couldn't score a seat.)

During the Bush years, Israelis were consistently among the few foreign populations that gave the American president high approval marks—often in far greater proportion than Americans themselves. Senior officials in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, where I worked, spoke on their cell phones daily with their White House counterparts—circumventing the State Department and the Israeli Foreign Ministry entirely.

That closeness paid off. It's no coincidence that, during the Bush years, Ariel Sharon had political cover to suggest "painful concessions" for peace—a euphemism for withdrawal from territory. The unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip—followed by preparations to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank that were interrupted only by the Hizbullah war of 2006—almost certainly would not have happened with anyone else in the White House less trusted to ensure Israel's safety.

Neither Obama nor his proxies enjoy anywhere near the same level of faith. In a recent Pew Research survey of global attitudes, Israel was the only country where the population's confidence in Obama's foreign-policy judgment was lower now than it was in Bush's judgment at the end of his presidency. (It was only 1 percent lower, but the rise in confidence elsewhere ranged from 6 percent in Pakistan to 79 percent in Germany, with most countries toward the upper half of that spectrum.) Even more striking: a recent poll found that only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama a "friend."

On policy, the two presidents are closer than they appear. The United States has always opposed Israel's settlement activity; it has just never been so vocal about its objections. (To Israeli ears, it sounds like Obama thinks settlers are the only obstacle to regional peace.) And, while Obama is less bellicose than Bush toward Israel's enemies, it's hard to point to concrete evidence that he is less committed to the Israel's security. The difference is just on emphasis. But, with an ascendant Iran, Israelis are skittish.

As an envoy, Bush could assuage most of these worries. Many Israelis, especially led by their current right-wing government, would readily trust that policies advanced by Bush had their best interests at heart, and he would not abandon them.

Of course, this is all just a fantasy. Bush isn't about to become anybody's envoy, let alone promote Obama's agenda. And Obama wouldn't squander the capital he has accrued from Arabs and Muslims by making Bush his front man. (After all, what rendered Bush popular in Israel rendered him unpopular in the rest of the Middle East.)

But, as odd as it sounds, channeling Bush wouldn't be such a bad thing. To help get Israelis behind the new American president, it would behoove the White House to show more urgency on the Iranian threat—and to openly press Arab countries for their own concessions, such as more diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Having collected political capital, it's time Obama began spending it.

And, finally, Obama should go to Israel and speak directly to Israelis, the way Bush did often. As Bradley Burston implored in Haaretz this week, "Reason with them, be honest and candid with them. Talk to them face to face and, most importantly, b'gova ha'einayim, 'at eye level,' as fellow human beings." Mano a mano. Kind of like in Texas.

Levey, author of the memoir Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government, is writing his second book, How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment.