The UN, Obama and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's moment of truth

While they see a president-elect who does not appear concerned with Israel's continued building in the West Bank, they also note his interest in achieving a negotiated peace.

November 29, 2016 21:02
3 minute read.
obama abbas netanyahu

US President Barack Obama arrives with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in Washington September 1, 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Barack Obama has for months held his cards close to the chest on plans for action toward Middle East peace at the UN Security Council, but he is fast running out of time to play his hand.

The outgoing administration says it is looking at ways to ensure that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not die on their president’s watch.

The current debate in the West Wing is whether US support for UN action would further the president’s goal or, conversely, precipitate the very consequences he fears the most: an entrenchment on both sides of the conflict and diminished odds of a negotiated outcome.

Obama knew he would face this dilemma even if his horse in the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton, had won the presidency.

She opposed any US involvement in an initiative, as she put it, that would impose parameters for peace on the parties “from without.” But Obama now faces a much less predictable and much more hostile successor taking over in less than two months. That has changed his calculus on the UN option considerably, sources say.

By taking action at the UN during Donald Trump’s transition period, Obama would force the president-elect and his burgeoning team to come up with a policy response the White House believes would be half-baked. From what the Obama administration has seen of the incoming president’s pattern of behavior, it expects that Trump would take their action as an attempt to box him in – prompting a response that would likely aggravate the situation further, placing Trump’s brand new administration far to the right and facilitating Israeli and Palestinian actions that Obama has long considered counterproductive.

While they see a president-elect who does not appear concerned with Israel’s continued building in the West Bank, they also note his interest in achieving a negotiated peace. Trump has referred to the twostate solution as the “deal of all deals,” and his drive toward the ultimate diplomatic achievement may lead him down a different policy path.

In that spirit, Obama – who contemplated the downsides of UN action long before Trump’s victory – may instead opt to use his newfound relationship with the president-elect to lobby him on the need to keep the two-state solution alive. Under Trump, the Republicans eliminated any mention of such an outcome to the conflict from its official party platform.

Israel’s leadership is gravely concerned that Obama will take action in his final days in office, joining a French effort to outline parameters at the Security Council for an ultimate peace agreement. Obama administration officials have, in the past, opposed such action as contrary to the pursuit of peace, expressing the belief that a peace agreement must be directly negotiated between the two parties.

And yet the administration fears that creating facts on the ground – new settlements – is systematically eroding the prospects of such a negotiation. They have thus held on to the option of UN action as a last resort, if not simply a tool to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

Israeli officials argue that a parameters resolution would codify the Palestinian Authority’s opening negotiating position, setting the bar for future talks on their terms. Such a development would destroy any chances for a negotiated outcome, they warn.

It would furthermore legitimize a Palestinian tactic of circumventing direct talks by relying on international bodies to support their actions – an approach the US has criticized.

Obama has considered giving a speech on the matter that would outline his own vision of how the process should proceed.

That option is still on the table, senior administration officials tell The Jerusalem Post.

But administration staff also believe that Israel must learn that it does not have, through proxy of the US, the power of an automatic veto at the Security Council.

Maintaining this threat of US action, or of US support for action, has not only provided the State Department with much-needed leverage over Jerusalem, but has also allowed them to remind Israel of the dynamics of the relationship.

These diplomatic advantages end with the decision to act, however, and that decision is fast approaching. Obama recognizes this and has been advised of the many risks accordingly.

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