Jerusalem Report

Obama and the peace process

Will the newly reelected US president really push for Israeli-Palestinian peace in his second term?

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Photo by: Jason Reed
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 motions.

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.

In foreign 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.

Many US 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 conciliatory path.

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 process.

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.

Obama has 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 eventually forms.

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 another shot.

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.

Another possible 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 appointment.

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 visit.

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 elsneraa@gmail.com and his website is www.alanelsner.com


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