Give Barack Obama this much credit — he realized a little earlier than some of his predecessors that the US can’t create a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Washington Post’s Steve Mufson reports today that the White House has ended its push to get the two sides to agree to peaceful coexistence, reasoning that time has run out for Obama to preside over it. Their goals are now more modest:
President Obama has concluded that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is beyond reach during his presidency and will press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to preserve the mere possibility of a two-state solution, senior administration officials said Thursday.
The issue has taken on greater importance with the recent wave of stabbings carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, senior administration members said during a conference call with reporters about Netanyahu’s visit next week.
They said that the administration has become “realistic” that there might not even be negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials before Obama leaves office. In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said his government would no longer consider itself bound by the Oslo peace agreements in effect for two decades, charging that Israel had failed to live up to its obligations.
In fact, we don’t have to give Obama credit. His administration has already claimed it:
Rob Malley, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, said that for the first time in two decades, an American administration “faces the reality” that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not in the cards for the remainder” of a presidency. That, he said, has “led to a reassessment not only of what we can do but of what the parties can do.”
In other words, he wants credit for recognizing failure and futility. Credit granted, sir.
Rob Malley is an interesting White House figure in this long arc of failure. He first came to the attention of the media in 2008, while serving as an informal Middle East policy adviser for the campaign. When Malley admitted to taking meetings with Hamas — then and now a State Department-listed terrorist group — the Obama campaign cut ties with Malley. Ben LaBolt assured the media that Malley had no formal position in Obama’s organization, and that “he will not play any role in the future.” Obama hired Malley back in February 2014 to help improve ties with allies in the Persian Gulf, a task at which Obama hasn’t exactly excelled, either.
Every US president comes up with a plan to fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; every president has failed, including Bill Clinton, who also had Malley on hand to advise him at Camp David. (Malley blamed Ehud Barak, while everyone else blamed Yasser Arafat.) A failure by Obama is not remarkable on its own, but what is remarkable is just how badly Obama botched the issue from the start. Obama exacerbated tensions in 2009 by insisting on a building freeze around Jerusalem that even the Palestinians hadn’t demanded. The New Republic’s Yossi Klein Halevi blasted Obama at the time for setting back negotiations 20 years:
The return of menace to Jerusalem is not because a mid-level bureaucrat announced stage four of a seven-stage process in the eventual construction of 1,600 apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. Such announcements and building projects have become so routine over the years that Palestinians have scarcely responded, let alone violently. In negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, the permanence of Ramat Shlomo, and other Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, has been a given. Ramat Shlomo, located between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Ramot, will remain within the boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem according to every peace plan. Unlike the small Jewish enclaves inserted into Arab neighborhoods, on which Israelis are strongly divided, building in the established Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem defines the national consensus.
Why, then, the outbreak of violence now? Why Hamas’s “day of rage” over Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority’s call to gather on the Temple Mount to “save” the Dome of the Rock from non-existent plans to build the Third Temple? Why the sudden outrage over rebuilding a synagogue, destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, when dozens of synagogues and yeshivas have been built in the quarter without incident?
The answer lies not in Jerusalem but in Washington. By placing the issue of building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem at the center of the peace process, President Obama has inadvertently challenged the Palestinians to do no less.
Astonishingly, Obama is repeating the key tactical mistake of his failed efforts to restart Middle East peace talks over the last year. Though Obama’s insistence on a settlement freeze to help restart negotiations was legitimate, he went a step too far by including building in East Jerusalem. Every Israeli government over the last four decades has built in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; no government, let alone one headed by the Likud, could possibly agree to a freeze there. Obama made resumption of negotiations hostage to a demand that could not be met. The result was that Palestinian leaders were forced to adjust their demands accordingly.
Obama is directly responsible for one of the most absurd turns in the history of Middle East negotiations. Though Palestinian leaders negotiated with Israeli governments that built extensively in the West Bank, they now refused to sit down with the first Israeli government to actually agree to a suspension of building. Obama’s demand for a building freeze in Jerusalem led to a freeze in negotiations.
Ever since, Obama has made it clear that he would punish the Israelis for every actual and perceived obstacle to a deal, while doing nothing about the Palestinians and their provocations. Hamas realized the weakness in Washington long before Fatah did, and launched a bloody war from Gaza expecting the US to intervene to restrain the Israelis. What Hamas didn’t grasp was that Obama was too weak to handcuff Netanyahu, who fought the war on Hamas’ terms and squashed them, with the US complaining about their response the entire time.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. The US fancies itself as the broker for the Israeli-Palestinian talks, with absolutely no basis for that claim given the results of the last 40-plus years. The bitter truth of the conflict is that both the Palestinians and the Israelis want Israel, and neither side wants to give it up. Until the Palestinians give up on their one-state solution and satisfy themselves with the West Bank and Gaza as a permanent solution, there will be no peace. Give Obama one clap for seeing the futility somewhat sooner than his predecessors, and a couple of boos for making the situation much worse than it had to be.