US President Barack Obama will be inaugurated for a second term on January 21,
2012 – and the following day in all probability Israelis will reelect Benjamin
Netanyahu to a new term as prime minister.
One of the big unanswered
questions is whether Obama will mount a serious effort to revitalize the peace
process between Israel and the Palestinians or whether he will conclude that
it’s just too tough and content himself with going through the
Obviously, Obama is facing huge challenges both at home and
abroad, and will have to set priorities. One thing we’ve learned is that
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks generally don’t get very far without the active
and committed personal involvement of the president of the United States – and
even that is no guarantee of success as President Bill Clinton discovered at
Camp David in 2000. For Obama, there are only so many hours in the day and only so many issues he can personally attend to.
policy, he has already indicated that his No. 1 goal and election promise is to
get US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Iran’s nuclear weapons
program, which the president is committed to prevent from coming to fruition, is
also an urgent priority and the crisis surrounding Iran is likely to come to a
head some time next spring.
Then, there is the continued bleeding in
Syria which threatens to spread instability throughout the region and the
general problem of how to deal with the resurgent Islamism that has swept the
Arab world while taking on an unmistakable anti- American tone.
commentators believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace is simply out of reach right
now. After years of mutual distrust and dislike, neither Netanyahu nor
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appear to have the will to make
the painful concessions that would be required and the general chaos in the
region make a deal even harder.
Netanyahu will no doubt argue that he
cannot focus on peace negotiations while the Iranian nuclear threat is still
hanging over Israel even though some may feel that a real Israeli-Palestinian
peace process further isolates Iran.
Possibly the strongest argument for
Obama making Israeli-Palestinian peace one of his top priorities is the fear
that time and space for a two-state solution are both fast running out. Further
delay, during which Israel can continue to increase its presence in the West
Bank, could close off the option for a viable two-state solution forever. And
nobody has a realistic backup plan, at least not one that preserves Israel as a
democratic state with a Jewish majority.
At a forum in Tel Aviv the
morning after the election, Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, said it
would be unrealistic to think Obama would choose to ignore the Palestinian issue
in his second term. “It always finds its way back onto the agenda. You can’t
expect this to go away or remain on the back burner,” he said, without offering
a prediction of what Obama might do.
There are a few other straws in the
wind that optimists have grabbed on to. First, there was Abbas’s
statement in an interview with an Israeli TV station that he was not seeking the
right to live in Israel, even though he was born in Safed, and that “Palestine
now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This
is now and forever.” Even though he subsequently somewhat backed away from the
statement by saying it was purely personal, Abbas’s remark definitely caught the
eyes of policymakers in Washington.
Officials also saw the recent visit
of the Emir of Qatar to Gaza and his promise to invest heavily in rebuilding
there as a potential step aimed at weaning Hamas away from Iran and on to a more
In the next couple of weeks, before the new
administration even takes over, Obama and his advisors have to handle Abbas’s
move to upgrade the status of the Palestinians in the United Nations General
Assembly. Their task is to prevent the issue, which is seen here as mostly
symbolic, from creating more roadblocks to the possible re-launch of the peace
The tension and mutual personal antipathy between Obama and
Netanyahu have been well catalogued, and there are some both in the American
Jewish community and Jerusalem who believe that the president has been waiting
until after his reelection to deliver some “payback” to the Israeli leader. But
Obama, whose cerebral exterior hides a steely inner soul and who is said not to
quickly forget past insults, is far too sophisticated to respond with crude
threats or personal put-downs.
If there is to be payback, it would most
likely come in the form of pressure on Israel to make concessions on a key
policy issue, whether Iran or the peace process or both.
already laid down parameters for a peace deal, which he says must be based on
the 1967 lines with some territorial swaps. If Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
actually materialize, he may be tempted to lay out a full-scale American peace
blueprint in detail. Many in Washington fear that merely resuming negotiations
for the sake of having negotiations is a trap and that Netanyahu’s first
instinct would be to play for time and wait for a new impasse to develop. Only
negotiations based around a real plan backed by real US pressure on both parties
could succeed, according to this line of reasoning. But laying down a plan is
risky and it’s a card the United States can only play once so the timing would
have to be impeccable.
Nobody should expect immediate action from Obama
on this. It takes several weeks to get the top officials in a new administration
confirmed by the Senate and much will also depend on exactly how strongly
Netanyahu performs in the Israeli election and on the shape of the coalition he
But Obama’s choice of secretary of state to replace
Hillary Clinton could in itself send a powerful signal about his intentions. The
top most-talked-about contenders prior to the election were Massachusetts
Senator John Kerry and UN ambassador Susan Rice.
Kerry, of course, is a
very substantial figure in his own right. He was his party’s presidential
nominee in 2004 when he selected Obama, then a virtual unknown running for the
Senate in Illinois, to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National
Convention. That speech catapulted Obama to national prominence and paved the
way for his presidential bid in 2008.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, Kerry is well-versed in international affairs and seems
interested in the job. But his departure would create another opportunity for
the Republicans to pick up a Senate seat. Massachusetts just saw one of
the toughest and most bitter Senate races in the nation. The defeated
Republican, Scott Brown, who lost by only four percentage points in a state –
actually Romney’s home state – that went for Obama by 23 points, is eager for
Rice’s star has dimmed since she went on the record making
what turned out to be erroneous remarks about the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on
September 11 in which US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other
Americans died. The thinking is that Republicans might balk at confirming her
without further information about what various members of the administration
knew about the attack and when they knew it. Even if he believes Rice would
ultimately be confirmed, Obama may not want to give his opponents another
opportunity to dredge up the Benghazi incident.
Rice, as a diplomat and
former thinktank analyst, would carry considerably less heft as secretary of
state than would Kerry. But this, in turn, might allow Obama to appoint a
heavy-hitter as special Middle East Peace Envoy – someone like former President
Bill Clinton, if he could be persuaded to take the job.
secretary of state is the current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon who is
highly regarded in Washington as exceptionally intelligent, clear-thinking,
pragmatic, efficient and a great crisis manager who has the full confidence of
the president. In the same vein, the name of the current Deputy Secretary of
State William Burns has been mentioned as a possible long-shot
The choice of secretary of state will be a strong indicator
of the kind of foreign policy Obama intends to pursue. Someone like Kerry, who
could be described as a statesman in his own right, might indicate that Obama
intends to focus largely on domestic policy and leave most day-today matters to
the State Department. A Rice or a Donilon or a Burns might indicate
Obama’s intention of taking a more hands-on approach.
An early indicator
of Obama’s intentions regarding the Israel-Palestine issue could come a week
after the inauguration on January 29, which has been tentatively scheduled for
the 2013 State of the Union Address. The text will be carefully parsed. Will
Obama commit himself to peacemaking or will he just put forth the usual
boilerplate? After that, there is a feeling that Obama owes Israel a
Obama’s problem is one of time. A second term president has
probably only around 18 to 20 months in order to get things done with Congress.
After that, with both parties gearing up for mid-term elections, it becomes
almost impossible. And once the mid-terms are over, the president is
automatically cast as a lame duck.
It is usually in those last two years
that American presidents turn to foreign affairs where their hands are not tied
– and are drawn almost inevitably to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Great
White Whale of US foreign policy. But by then, it is already too late because a
lame duck at home is also a lame duck abroad.
The writer was Reuters State
Department correspondent for five years. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his
website is www.alanelsner.com