Speculation has been rife for some time that President Barack Obama will use the presidential interregnum to make a legacy statement on Israel-Palestine. On the cards are a presidential speech that would lay out a suggested framework for a two-state solution, or, in what would be a diplomatic bombshell: using the UN Security Council to push a resolution that would either condemn settlements or even lay down guidelines and a timetable for a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Over the past year the Obama administration has ratcheted up the pressure with increasingly harsh criticism of settlement construction and comments questioning the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
Things came to a head in early October with a series of stinging statements following the approval of 98 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh. The construction was announced a month after Obama signed off on a ten-year $38 billion military aid package, two weeks after Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and just days after the American president had made a lightning trip to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres.
“It is deeply troubling, in the wake of Israel and the US concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel’s security, that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long-term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“Furthermore, it is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the US and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for a two-state solution that he so passionately supported.”
The White House too issued a notably caustic response. “We did receive public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this announcement,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnst. “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern.”
Martin Indyk, Obama’s former special envoy to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians told The New York Times
in the wake of those statements that the administration has been escalating its rhetoric in opposition to West Bank settlement activity for more than a year, but Israel isn’t listening.
“At a certain point,” he said, “the administration may well decide that there need to be consequences for what it now sees as an effort to close off the two-state solution.”
A clue as to what those consequences may look like came in an October 6 editorial in The Times
titled ‘At the Boiling Point with Israel.’ “The best idea under discussion now would be to have the United Nations Security Council, in an official resolution, lay down guidelines for a peace agreement covering such issues as Israel’s security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and borders for both states,” the editorial stated, adding that “another, though weaker, option is for Mr. Obama to act unilaterally and articulate this framework for the two parties.”
Netanyahu is clearly feeling the heat. In a meeting with settlers in mid-October he reportedly described the presidential interregnum – the period between the US elections on November 8 and the presidential switch-over on January 20, 2017 – as a sensitive period. Warning that Obama could “endanger the settlement enterprise,” Netanyahu, according to a report in Haaretz
, said, “We need to act wisely, and you, of all people, ought to understand that.”
While Netanyahu denied those comments, his office later issued a statement in which it said the prime minister had warned the settlers that: “In the past, there were presidents who at the end of their term in office advanced initiatives that were not in line with Israel’s interests.”
“The prime minister added that he hopes this won’t happen again, and he expects the US not to change its traditional policy of the last several decades and to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council,” the Prime Minister’s Office’s statement read.
“Netanyahu is worried,” Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US policy in the Middle East, tells The Jerusalem Report. “I’m sure he has all kinds of signals from Washington suggesting that this will happen. I would be worried as well.”
Gilboa notes the personality clash between Obama and Netanyahu, saying there is strong motivation in the administration to settle the account with the prime minister.
That account is one created by years of abrasive relations between the two leaders and turbocharged by Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama’s main motivation will be to explain why he failed to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which along with the Iran deal was his main foreign policy agenda, explains Gilboa, and secondly to blame Netanyahu for the failure.
“There is a very strong personal element which I think will disappear regardless of who the next president is. I think the personal animosity and especially the poison that was created by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the Iran deal created a very bad personal relationship. I don’t think Obama will acknowledge that, but I think this is his main motivation.
What Obama chooses to do could very much depend on the outcome of the elections.
Hillary Clinton has already said she wants to reset relations with Israel. Any extreme action on the part of Obama would contradict that, and in the event Clinton wins, Obama would have to consult with his Democrat successor. If Trump, on the other hand, were to win the ballot on November 8, Obama wouldn’t care less. Gilboa adds that it would even provide him with some “added motivation to come up with some kind of initiative.”
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to both Obama and Clinton, while the latter served as Secretary of State, said in late September at a conference on the US-Israel relationship that “if Trump wins, the president would be more inclined to go for a Security Council resolution to try to do something that binds, creates standards for the future that the next president couldn’t undo. If Clinton wins, I suspect he would be more sensitive to her concerns as to whether this helps or hurts her.”
Regardless of who wins, any major speech or document would be perceived as a fundamental statement on how negotiations should take place – all the more so a Security Council resolution – and would leave the next president with less freedom.
Meanwhile, senior diplomatic sources in Jerusalem were only willing to say that there are concerns but would not specify what Israel feared could happen and what steps it is taking.
Israel can be expected to exert pressure via Congress and the Jewish lobby. A bipartisan letter submitted by 88 US Senators on September 20 before the prime minister’s New York meeting with Obama called on the president to uphold US policy vetoing any “one-sided United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”
The letter quoted Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 2011, in which he said, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”
Two days later, Netanyahu addressed the assembly and used almost identical language, praising America’s consistent support for Israel at the United Nations as one of the pillars of the US-Israel relationship and clearly making a call for Obama not to take the Security Council route.
“I appreciate President Obama’s commitment to that long-standing US policy,” Netanyahu told the assembly. “In fact, the only time that the United States cast a UN Security Council veto during the Obama presidency was against an anti-Israel resolution in 2011. As President Obama rightly declared at this podium, peace will not come from statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”
Netanyahu also reportedly raised the subject with Obama in New York and in subsequent phone calls with Secretary of State John Kerry, but failed to receive a commitment that the US would not allow a Security Council motion to pass.
But Netanyahu will also be gambling that even if Obama does opt to take the Security Council route, he won’t, at the end of the day, allow a resolution that would divert from traditional American policy, namely, a resolution that would break the land for peace mold, redefine the vague withdrawal from territories of Resolution 242 replacing it with a reference to the 1967 lines, and explicitly state that settlements are illegal.
“I don’t think there is cause for great concern,” Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser, Ya’akovAmidror, tells The Report.
“I see no reason for Israel to be overly worried. It may be unpleasant, and it would be better if it didn’t happen, but I don’t see the Americans putting anything extreme on the table.”
Amidror also points out that regional circumstances could also impede Obama’s intent to go via the Security Council.
“I think it would be ridiculous if that is what the UN were to discuss at a time when the battle is ongoing for Mosul, when there are so many deaths in Syria, when refugees are pouring into Europe, and when Turkey doesn’t recognize the Lausanne Treaty that delineates its borders,” says Amidror.
“Either way,” he adds, “what the Americans have put on the table until now hasn’t brought the Palestinians to negotiations and whatever they bring to the table won’t get them to negotiate.
All avenues point to a speech being the likely option, if Obama wants to build his peace-making legacy.
But even then, says Gilboa, that would be a violation of custom and there is no precedent for an American president to come out during the interregnum with a new initiative during that time period that would affect the policies of the next president.
If I were advising Obama,” says Gilboa, “I would tell him, ‘If you want to do it, do it in a speech after the next president is in place or write it in your memoirs.’”