Obama’s sour notes in Israel are music to Europeans

Analysis: US president's rhetoric hit the right notes on the other side of the Atlantic, offering hope for progress in the peace process.

Obama 311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama 311 reuters
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON – In the cacophonous response to US President Barack Obama’s prescription for moving forward in the peace process on Thursday, in which angry voices could be heard from Jerusalem to Jeddah, there was one realm in which his words were warmly welcomed.
The Quartet – EU, US, UN and Russia – on Friday issued a statement lauding Obama’s template, which included a call for negotiations to be held with the 1967 lines and mutually agreed land swaps as their basis as well as for talks to address land and security disputes before moving to other final status issues.
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And that means that despite the hemming and hawing of the two parties ever since Obama spoke, his pronouncements might have had a significant impact on one of their most important targets: the Europeans.
The White House, like the Prime Minister’s Office, wants to prevent the Palestinians from going to the UN to seek a unilateral declaration of statehood in September, since both countries see that as counterproductive to the only route to a sustainable peace – a negotiated agreement.
So the US feels it not only needs to offer sweeteners to the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, but also assurances to the Europeans that there’s an alternative path for progress on the peace process. To that end, Obama’s rhetoric hit the right notes on the other side of the Atlantic.
“The members of the Quartet are in full agreement about the urgent need to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” read the statement put out by the group. “To that effect, the Quartet expressed its strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace outlined by US President Barack Obama.”
It particularly noted its concurrence that “moving forward on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final resolution of the conflict.”
The statement concluded, “The Quartet reiterates its strong appeal to the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions.”
In a conference call with Jewish leaders on Thursday – many of who were irate at the president’s statements – new White House Middle East advisor Steve Simon tried to reassure them by spelling out this strategy.
Simon warned of a coming “train wreck” due to the Palestinians’ intention to go before the UN, according to participants on the off-the-record call who requested anonymity.
The Europeans are seen as crucial because they are the one bloc of countries most in play at the UN, and they would lend moral and political authority to a non-binding General Assembly resolution declaring statehood if they supported it. Arab and non-aligned countries are expected to back the measure in any case, giving it the majority it needs to pass.
The Europeans, according to Simon, are sympathetic to Israel and willing to side with its position if they see another way forward. The speech on Thursday was therefore positioned as a way to provide that alternative, according to listeners on Simon’s call.
However, skepticism remains in the pro-Israel community over the intention behind – let alone effect of – Obama’s speech. And others who would like to see progress on bringing the parties to the negotiating table have questioned how Obama’s vision could be implemented at a time when the two sides are so far apart.
On another off-record conference call on Friday with another coalition of groups, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, did not indicate there was a US effort underway to try to avert a Palestinian appeal to the UN, but did say that the direct negotiations were the only viable path, according to several people on the call.
To that end, the US would begin consulting with the Quartet and other partners about how to move things forward in the coming weeks.
Though some observers have pointed out that Obama’s speech did not mention any concrete action involving the two parties, his presentation was delivered ahead of the trip he and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be making to Europe this week.
“We've been coordinating with them through the Quartet and on a bilateral basis over the course of the last several months,” Rhodes said of US conversations with the EU over the peace process, in a briefing with reporters on Friday previewing his European trip.
“I certainly expect that President Obama will have an opportunity to discuss Middle East peace, to discuss his statements yesterday that the basis and foundation for successful negotiations should begin with territorial security to include the 1967 borders plus swaps as a basis on territory, and to include affirmation and assurances related to Israel’s security.”
If the road to peace in Jerusalem runs through Brussels, this trip will be a productive place for Obama to take his serenade.