Will Obama focus on Israel-Palestinian issues?
Is history about to repeat itself?
President Obama’s first three years in office saw some serious tussling with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the peace process and settlements. Now, with Obama beginning his second term and Netanyahu looking pretty certain to win next month’s Israeli elections, will there be a replay of past tensions?
Not for now, experts suggest, saying that the Obama administration does not seem eager to wade back into the Israeli-Palestinian morass — preferring to keep it on the back burner.
David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, dismissed as overblown pre-election suggestions that Obama would ramp up pressure on Israel over the peace process in his second term.
“I don't think a lot of the political physics are suspended in a second term,” he said. “There are some in Israel who see a second presidential term as the king, but Obama's going to want to use his replenished political capital carefully.”
Makovksy said that between tough negotiations with the Republicans on fiscal issues and foreign policy challenges looming — including Iran’s nuclear program and tumult in the Middle East — Obama is not going to make Israeli-Palestinian issues a priority.
Moreover, Makovsky suggested, there is no clear opening right now for a breakthrough.
“It's probably safe to assume that right now there's no grand deal to be done between Israelis and Palestinians,” Makovsky said.
Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who has previously criticized Obama for pressuring Israel, said that the president seems to have accepted that there are limits to what Americans can do without willing partners.
“I think Obama no longer buys the catechism that we are this close to an agreement and all we need is presidential involvement,” Rosen said. “I don't think it’s just a political calculation or he's distracted or he's afraid of the pro-Israel lobby. He never had a secret plan to go for broke after the elections — the plan was ascribed to him by a combination of people on the right who feared it and people on the left who dreamed of it.”
American journalist Peter Beinart recently wrote in The Daily Beast that the Obama administration, frustrated with Netanyahu, had decided to pursue a policy of “benign neglect” toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beinart, a prominent critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, cited unnamed administration officials who said that while the U.S. would still provide military and diplomatic assistance to Israel, it would no longer push to re-launch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state,” Beinart wrote. “Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.”
But in an interview with reporters earlier this month, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said that the two countries were in agreement that the fault for the lack of negotiations belongs to the Palestinians, who have refused to rejoin talks in the absence of a settlement freeze.
“Our position remains unchanged — we are willing to negotiate with the Palestinians, today, not tomorrow, in Washington, Jerusalem, Ramallah, wherever, directly without preconditions on all the core issues to reach peace,” Oren said. “That’s not only our position, that’s the position of President Obama and the administration.”
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, agreed that Obama is likely to pull back from engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, having been burned by it in the past. He also said that Obama needs to maintain amicable relations with Netanyahu as he works to find a non-military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
But Miller predicted that the president would eventually reengage, if only because he did not want to be remembered as the president who let the two-state solution die.
“It doesn't mean he has to rush, but I'm betting you that by the time he's done, he'll have engaged in some way on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” said Miller, a vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Since the U.S. presidential election, there have been a number of significant developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. But they have not sparked any major blow-ups in U.S.-Israel relations.
A top Israeli official privately told one American Jewish interlocutor who spoke with JTA that Obama’s backing of Israel during its conflict last month with Hamas in the Gaza Strip was “A-plus.”
The United States then stood with Israel and just seven other countries in opposing the Palestinians’ successful bid to enhance their status to non-member state at the United Nations.
The Obama administration did, however, criticize Israel’s announcement after the U.N. vote of plans for new construction in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In his Daily Beast article, Beinart argued that the Obama administration did not exert itself to line up votes for Israel at the U.N., but also was restrained in its criticism of Israel's construction plans — both of which reflect its new hands-off approach.
New developments also have the potential to shake up U.S.-Israel relations. Among the potential game-changers are an empowered Hamas, a lurch to the right in Israel’s government and the prospect of top foreign policy and defense spots in a second-term Obama Cabinet going to figures who have been critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — both of whom enjoy relatively warm relations with Israeli leaders — have said they will retire next year.
The two reported frontrunners to replace them are both figures who have had their differences with Israel. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the most likely Clinton replacement, has been among the sharpest congressional critics of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Many in pro-Israel circles are expressing alarm over the prospect of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel replacing Panetta. Hagel, a Republican who says he is a supporter of Israel, has often found himself at odds with pro-Israel groups. As a senator, he refused to sign on to congressional letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, calling such statements “stupid.”