Analysis: A softer Obama tone on Israel?

Failure, and reality, seems – finally – to have had a sobering effect. Instead of a big overarching deal, Obama is talking about small steps, trust-building steps.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a telling indication of her priorities, the last question Al-Arabiya reporter Nadia Bilbassy-Charters asked US President Barack Obama in an interview over the weekend had to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
“You’re the second president I’m interviewing who is leaving office without realizing the vision of a Palestinian state,” she said. “You had serious efforts in the first and second administration. Yet we receive – we reached a dead-end. Why? Who is responsible for that?” Obama’s answer was telling both for what he said, as for what he didn’t.
Here he was, talking to a Saudi- owned pan-Arab network, and he could have won points by bashing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by placing the blame for the stalemate – as some officials in his administration have done – on the settlements.
He could have reiterated some of the angry statements that came out of the White House and State Department following Netanyahu’s election in March.
He could have re-upped the threat to “reassess” America’s approach to the Mideast peace process, code for warning that Washington may remove its diplomatic shield of Israel in the UN Security Council. He could have vented against the new government, saying its right-wing composition dimmed the prospects for peace.
But he did none of that.
Instead, after reiterating his commitment both to Israel and to a Palestinian state, he said that the politics on both sides made reaching a deal unlikely.
“And we worked very hard, but, frankly, the politics inside of Israel and the politics among the Palestinians, as well, made it very difficult for each side to trust each other enough to make that leap.”
The balance in those words obviously will be noted and find favor in the Prime Minister’s Office.
As, too, will Obama’s prescription for the short term.
“And what I think at this point, realistically, we can do is to try to rebuild trust – not through a big overarching deal, which I don’t think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas – but if we can start building some trust around, for example, relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year; if we can do more to create business opportunities and jobs inside the territories – if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two state solution will reassert itself,” he said.
That is not an insignificant change of tone for a president who, when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has up until now favored “swinging for the fences,” going for the comprehensive deal. That was what underpinned the logic of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed negotiations in 2013-2014.
Kerry said it straight out at the outset, that the goal was to achieve a final-status agreement in nine months.
Failure, and reality, seems – finally – to have had a sobering effect. Instead of a big overarching deal, Obama is talking about small steps, trust-building steps.
If this signals the beginning of a call for incrementalism, then it is something Netanyahu – and even Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett – can sign off on. They both believe that even if the conflict cannot be solved now, then at least the situation on the ground can be improved significantly – a bottom-up approach.
Truth be told, over the last few months Israel has taken a number of such small steps that haven’t attracted much attention, but seem to amount to an effort to do what Obama discussed – “building some trust around.”
These measures included allowing, for the first time in 15 years, a small number of cars with Palestinian license plates to enter Israel; authorization of a water hook-up for new Palestinian city of Rawabi; releasing frozen Palestinian tax revenues; and allowing uniformed Palestinian policemen to operate in some PA communities surrounding Jerusalem for the first time in 20 years.
Though he didn’t mention it, Obama obviously would like to see a curb in construction beyond the Green Line as part of the effort to rebuild trust.
But rebuilding trust is not a one-way street. For things to move forward, Israel’s trust will also need to be rebuilt, no less than that of the Palestinians.
A good place for that to start would be the Palestinians abandoning high-profile efforts to isolate Israel, including the most recent bid to get it kicked out of FIFA, the world’s football federation.
Neither side, at this stage, is likely to take those types of the larger confidence building measures needed to rebuild trust. But what was interesting about the Obama interview is that he seemed to lower the bar, and not blame Israel for the need to do so – a recognition of reality that Jerusalem will certainly welcome and appreciate.