US President Barack Obama meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) at the White House.
The recent Wall Street Journal report on the White House’s plans for reviving the stalled Middle East negotiations before President Barack Obama leaves office caught many people by surprise, for two reasons. First is the widespread assessment that following the failure of the Kerry mission in 2013-2014, Obama had lost any appetite for involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that show no indication of a likely breakthrough.
Second, the common knowledge that US presidents do not like to embark on new initiatives in their final year in office. There have, however, been exceptions to this rule: Reagan recognized the PLO in late 1988, Clinton published his parameters in late 2000 and Bush mediated between prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in late 2008. Therefore, the possibility that Obama is entertaining a Middle East initiative this year warrants exploration.
Whether leaders admit it or not, they are very much concerned with their legacy. To date, Obama’s legacy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been disappointing, to say the least. The blame may be placed on the two parties – indeed, they should be blamed for their recklessness – yet even so, the overall assessment of Obama’s involvement in the peace process is very poor. It is true that he was preoccupied with pressing international and domestic problems, yet his inactivity and indifference have stood in sharp contrast to the expectations of him before he assumed office. Suffice to remember his high praise of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) in July 2008, saying that “the Israelis would be crazy not to accept this initiative. It would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.”
Unfortunately, this initiative continues to lie dormant on Israel’s and the US’ doorsteps.
In light of Obama’s mixed legacy in this field, a new late-term initiative may not be a bad idea at all.
The question is what should and can be done? Since the prospects of resuming negotiations between Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are slim at best, Obama should not focus on bilateral issues. The ideas noted in the Wall Street Journal report include a possible UN Security Council resolution to replace UN Resolution 242, a statement by the Middle East Quartet and a presidential speech.
The floated ideas also include several that the US is probably not considering seriously, such as an international conference, which is advanced by France.
Since such a conference is a formidable task, as evidenced by James Baker’s Madrid Conference (1991) and Condoleezza Rice’s Annapolis Conference (2007), a one-shot event would be more expedient.
A presidential speech, declaration, or statement would not demand lengthy, debilitating talks with the conflicting parties and would allow Obama, unfettered by election considerations or the reactions of lobby groups, to lay out his vision for a solution to the conflict. He should not wait for the parties’ approval for his vision, as Clinton did. Such an initiative will hopefully serve as a practical guide for future administrations, and for Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Similarities to the Clinton parameters – in terms and substance – can be expected, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it will signal continuity in the American position that future leaders will not be able to dismiss lightly.
Obama’s initiative should, however, seriously consider departing from Clinton’s parameters on at least five points, in line with the developments in the Middle East in the past 15 years. First, emphasis on a structured time frame (today, the passing of time is working to the detriment of both conflicting parties as the possibility of a two-state solution is slowly fading away); second, reference to the fact that the settlements are an impediment to peace; third, reference to Israel’s desire for recognition as a Jewish state; four, emphasis on the positive role of Arab Peace Initiative, which will tie the Israeli- Palestinian settlement to an overall Israeli-Arab settlement, leading to the normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab Middle Eastern countries; and finally, it should be stressed that the parameters in principle also refer to the Gaza Strip although negotiations with Hamas will not take place until it changes its position toward peace and Israel.
Obama’s desire to sign the Iranian nuclear deal was driven by his conviction that it was “the right thing to do.” The same conviction should also guide his thinking in the case of the Middle East conflict.
In 2017, Israel will celebrate the centennial of the Balfour Declaration – the British promise to build a Jewish national home in Palestine. In early 2017, in his final days in office, Obama can define the precise boundaries of that state, which have not yet been conclusively defined.
The author is the Bamberger and Fuld Chair in the History of the Muslim Peoples at the Department of Islamic and Middle East Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and board member of Mitvim – the Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. The author recently published his book Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
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