Diplomacy: Unlikely to be the ‘end of the world’

Much is being made of what US President Barack Obama will do regarding the Mideast as he goes out the door; Either way, the final impact is likely to be far less than the hype or the fears.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama against a backdrop of Israeli flags and American flags (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama against a backdrop of Israeli flags and American flags
The scenario goes something like this: With a “bellyful of Bibi” after eight troublesome years of working with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama will take out all his pent-up frustrations on the prime minister in the period between the US elections on November 8, and the formal end of his term on January 20.
A vengeful Obama, this script goes, will either back a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for a time frame for negotiating an agreement with the Palestinians that will be based on the 1967 lines; initiate a resolution of his own that will call the settlements illegal; or give a parting Mideast speech in which he will lay down what he believes should be the parameters of a future agreement.
His parting message will be clear: “Take that, Netanyahu!” For almost the entirety of Obama’s eight years in office, loud voices have been heard in the Israeli media and among opposition politicians predicting that any day now, the American boom will be lowered, and the president will pin Israel to the wall as no president has ever done before.
After Obama’s first four years, the conventional wisdom was that he had nothing to lose anymore with Jewish voters, and that the second four years would be dreadful. After the Congressional elections in 2014, there were those who thought that we would now see Obama unhinged, without any domestic constraints whatsoever against doing what he really wanted to do against the Jewish state.
And after the Iran deal was passed last summer, various headlines predicted that the president’s anger at Netanyahu for trying to obstruct the deal would be nigh upon us.
Granted, the last eight years – the so-called “Obibi era” – has by no means been a honeymoon in the relations between the US president and the Israeli prime minister. But the boom was never lowered, and the US-Israel relationship remains strong and robust.
As Kenneth Stein, a professor of contemporary Mideast history, political science and Israel studies at Emory University in Atlanta said at a conference this week in Washington, sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Israeli-US relationship sustains itself both because of common values and identities, but also because the Mideast as a region “continues to change and churn.”
One of the reasons the US found itself tied to Israel in the 1950s, at a time when there was not a great deal of sympathy for the Jewish state in the State Department, was because of the Cold War, he noted.
“And as the region continues to change, and Israel continues to remain stable, Israel remains an aircraft carrier, a reliable friend. Even with all the stuff that goes on beneath the surface.”
If the US had other reliable allies in the region, the picture might look a little different, he asserted.
“But at the present time, given where the Mideast is headed, I think the relationship is pretty strong. Prime ministers and presidents tend to go, they don’t remain forever.”
AND IF PRESIDENTS “tend to go,” then – even more so – so do their speeches.
Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East negotiator who dealt with Mideast issues under George H. W.
Bush, as well as under Bill Clinton and Obama, said at the same conference that he imagines Obama will give a Mideast speech in his waning days, but that the significance of such a speech should not be overblown.
“I do think that sometime in the interregnum – after the election and before the next administration comes in – he may give a speech, where he might choose to lay out parameters. I don’t know if he has decided to do that. I think that one of the things he feels is that he doesn’t think Israel or the Palestinians at this point are willing or capable of doing anything.”
Ross said Obama believes that even if neither side would accept the parameters he would spell out, over time the rest of the international community – as well as both sides – would “come to realize that these are the only parameters that will actually work.”
But, he added, “presidents giving speeches at the end of a term frankly don’t have that big of an impact on anybody.”
Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, asked this week on Israel Radio about the prospects and impact of an Obama speech, was even more blunt.
“We are talking about a president who is ending his job in January,” Amidror said. “His declaration would be symbolic, maybe very important to the Palestinians, but it will not change anything on the ground or Israel’s position in the world.”
Even if the president references the 1967 lines, Amidror said, it is not as if this has not been referenced in negotiations in the past. He said that too much is being made over what is “relatively a small thing,” and that such a speech would not impact on the substance of the negotiations, nor their possible results.
“I recommend not getting that excited about it,” he said. “If it can be prevented, that is preferable, but if not, the damage is not that great.”
GRANTED, an Obama Mideast speech may not be cataclysmic, even a speech that references the 1967 lines.
But how about a UN Security Council resolution, one brought by the French and backed by the Americans? Or how about one brought by the Americans themselves? Wouldn’t that cause more substantive damage? Isn’t that something that should cause all Israelis great concern, reinforcing a national sense of impending doom and isolation? Ross, for one, doesn’t see such a resolution materializing.
Though he said that there are those who would want to see the parameters likely to be laid down by the president in a speech then incorporated inside a UN Security Council resolution, this was unlikely to happen because the president would probably balance his speech between what the Palestinians need, and what the Israelis need, while those pushing for a resolution don’t want to see any reference to Israel’s needs.
“I don’t think you can produce a Security Council resolution that can address both sides,” he said. “You can produce a Security Council resolution that can be specific on what the Palestinians feel they need – meaning it will be precise when it comes to borders, the 1967 lines and agreed swaps, precise when it comes to two capitals for two states in Jerusalem – that’s what the Palestinians want.”
But then, regarding issues important to Israel – such as security and specifying that Palestinian refugees will not be allowed into Israel – the Security Council resolution would be much more vague. “When it comes to refugees it will say, ‘there should be a resolution to the refugee issues,’ and when it comes to security it will say, ‘there should be security arrangements,’” Ross speculated.
“So you can get to the Security Council something very precise on what the Palestinians need, and something completely vague on what the Israelis need, and that actually will make things worse, not better. I don’t think the administration will make a big effort at the Security Council, because I think they realize the likely effect.”
Alan Baker, a former ambassador to Canada and from 1996 to 2004 the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, also said that there was too much fretting going on over a UN Security Council resolution.
The first thing needed, he said, was to distinguish between different types of UN Security Council resolutions.
One type are those taken under Chapter 7 of the UN charter which are obligatory, meaning that the UN can dispatch forces – and use tools like boycotts and sanctions – to carry them out.
Baker pointed out that none of the Security Council resolutions dealing with Israel – including 242, 338 and 425, which dealt with Lebanon – have been under this category.
Rather, those resolutions have all been pursuant to Chapter 6 of the UN charter, meaning they are recommendations.
These are resolutions that have teeth, but don’t bite. They have teeth, Baker explained, in that they are the recommendations of the one body in the world whose job it is to maintain peace and security. But they don’t bite because they are not obligatory.
“The basis of all the peace processes between Israel and its Arab neighbors is 242,” Baker said, sitting behind a book- and document-stacked desk at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where he is director of its Institute for Contemporary Affairs. He was referring to the landmark Security Council resolution adopted in November 1967 that established the principles that were to govern all subsequent negotiations.
These principles are a withdrawal of Israeli forces from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” (though it did not say “the territories,” which would imply all of them); and the right of every state in the area “to live in peace within secure and recognized borders free from threats or acts of force.”
UNSC 242, he said, was the foundation for all Middle East peace process that came afterward, including the peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), as well as all the agreements and memorandum that make up the Oslo Accords (1993-1999).
“For the Security Council now to come along and revoke 242, or adopt a new resolution that would neutralize or nullify it, would be basically to undermine the whole agreed upon peace process,” Baker said.
Baker said he did not believe the Americans, nor other actors in the Security Council, would allow this to happen.
“As much as they might dislike Netanyahu or Israel, I don’t believe they would go so far as to undermine the whole set of peace treaties and agreements.”
But, he acknowledged, the French may be hell-bent on bringing something to the Security Council. In that case he envisions a resolution that would basically reaffirm 242, “and add an element of urgency and energy to it.”
If that is the case, he said, Israel basically has little to fear. He said, however, it was important to pay attention to the language used in any future resolution referencing the 1967 lines, lines never mentioned in UNSC 242.
Baker stressed that the 1967 lines were never an international border, but only the 1949 armistice demarcation line between Israel and Jordan. And in that armistice agreement, he pointed out, Jordan insisted that these lines could not be considered an international border.
If a UN resolution would use language referencing the 1967 lines such as that used in the 2003 Road Map – that an accord would “end the occupation that began in 1967” – that would be a bitter pill that Netanyahu could swallow, though he would not like it, Baker said.
But a red line would be calling for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, something not mentioned in UNSC 242 and not something Israel is under any obligation to do.
Baker said he would also oppose adding a clause saying that any agreement should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” a line that Obama first used in a speech in 2011. “I’d object because we are not under any obligation under 242 to swap. Israel is obligated to withdraw from territories. This is adding a new element.”
According to Baker, the media is getting the public unnecessarily worked up over the issue, since a resolution that undermines UNSC 242 would be unlikely to garner US support.
“Israel,” he said, “could come and say, ‘We have been very careful, we haven’t annexed the territories because there is a peace process, we are committed to a negotiated final status with the Palestinians. But if you people are going to remove the whole basis of the peace process, then we would consider ourselves completely free to do whatever we want, and what is in our interests’.”
The more the world is afraid of a “crazy Israeli government,” he said, the more it would be hesitant to take a move that could bring down the entire existing peace process structure, not knowing how Israel would react.
With Netanyahu, he said, “no one knows” – another reason he believes this scenario is very unlikely.