Instead of flying home on Air Force One, Secretary of State John Kerry stayed in
the Middle East to brief Israeli and Palestinian leaders on President Barack
Obama’s meetings and try to answer the big question: What’s next? Obama clearly
sided with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in calling for unconditional talks,
having long since given up on his demand for a settlement freeze, and urged
Palestinian leaders to do the same.
Instead they rebuffed his pleas to
return to the negotiating table without preconditions, to drop threats to take
Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to refrain from taking
unilateral anti-Israel actions in UN agencies and to curb anti-Israel incitement
in Palestinian media.
It’s not that Obama has changed his mind regarding
settlement activity. He still considers it “counterproductive to the cause of
peace,” but sees both sides using it as an excuse to avoid
Netanyahu has been calling for unconditional talks all along while
pushing settlements, fully aware that the more construction the more remote the
two-state solution becomes. As if to prove his point, he has packed his new
government’s cabinet with ministers who want to accelerate construction and
oppose transferring any more of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
also brought into his government as chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who had
made considerable progress in talks with the Palestinians when she was Ehud
Olmert’s foreign minister, and then put her on such a short leash as to make one
wonder why she even took the job.
Livni is required to clear all
discussions in advance with a team of pro-settlement ministers hostile to
Palestinian statehood, and when she finally gets the OK to have a meeting, she
has to take along a minder, Netanyahu’s attorney and special envoy Yitzhak
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is sticking to his
demands for a total construction freeze and a release of prisoners and has
repeated threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague
if it continues to expand settlement activity.
In his first term, the
president had a greater interest in the peace process than his secretary of
state; the roles appear reversed this time. Kerry has long had much greater
interest in the subject than Hillary Clinton, and he plans to stop by regularly
in coming months to revive direct talks, starting with border and security
issues. Obama seems happy to let him carry the ball while the president focuses
on other issues, making himself available as the deal closer should the need
Obama wisely rejected a chance to address the Knesset, where
right-wing extremists were threatening to stage demonstrations and walkouts to
protest his appearance and his failure to deliver convicted spy Jonathan Pollard
to them. Claims by some on the Right that the American president insulted the
Knesset were disingenuous in light of the fact that they wanted him to come to
Knesset so they could vilify him.
The president’s lack of faith in
current leadership on both sides being ready for peace was evident in his choice
of audiences for his major address to the Israeli people last week. He chose an
audience of about 2,000 young people, mostly college students, at the
International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
Obama took a page from
Netanyahu’s playbook and scored a touchdown. In past visits to Washington, the
prime minister went over the president’s head by going to Congressional
Republicans who shared his desire to make Obama a one-termer and paint him as
In Israel last week, Obama went over the prime minister’s
head and spoke directly to the Israeli people, particularly the next generation
of the nation’s leaders. His speech was widely praised as eloquent and
inspirational, and the Yediot Aharonot newspaper said he was interrupted by
applause 82 times, including when he urged his young audience to “put yourself
in [the Palestinians’] shoes – look at the world through their
“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political
leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must
create the change that you want to see,” he told them.
He got a standing
ovation when he said, in Hebrew and English, “you are not alone.”
audience also had a message for the calcified Palestinian politicians: We are
ready for peace if you are.
The response of the young people at the
convention center sent a strong message of their desire for peace to Israel’s
paralyzed political establishment that it is woefully out of touch with the next
generation of voters and leaders. They want to see more housing construction
inside the 1967 borders, not in the West Bank. They also support the two-state
solution, but unless they mobilize to pressure their government for real change,
and the window of opportunity could slam shut.
Obama made an eloquent and
persuasive case for peace and indications are he dramatically turned public
opinion in his favor after four years of presidential missteps and hammering by
his foes, repaired his relations with Netanyahu and brokered Israeli-Turkish
reconciliation. That means his voice will get a more receptive hearing in Israel
in the future, after being drowned out over four years by the
Every president who has tried to resolve the Israeli-
Palestinian dispute has failed and there is no reason to believe that Obama,
with leaders on both sides unwilling and incapable, can succeed.
may be possible to at least get them talking to each other again, and that will
be Kerry’s job. With more than 20 years on the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, most recently as its chairman, he has the experience and desire, but
will he have the cooperation of the two governments?