President Obama: now is the time for engagement

Relations between Israelis and Palestinians are at an all-time low.  Negotiations between them have been stagnating; both parties recently took unilateral steps that have pushed a peace deal between the two parties further apart. After years of disengagement from this critical issue, now is the time for President Obama to intervene by utilizing his capital from his reelection to push the sides together.

Israeli society faces a stark choice during the elections next month. The election of the hawkish Likud-Beitenu list would only further embolden current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This would lessen pressure on him to offer significant compromises to the Palestinians- or even any smaller positive departures from the status-quo . In the current political climate, Shelly Yachimovich the leader of what is presumed to be the largest opposition party in the next Knesset is basing much of her campaign around socio-economic issues. Israelis who staunchly support the peace process could face a difficult situation where a right wing prime minister faces almost no opposition on diplomatic and security matters. Although Israel’s political system is generally more volatile than other democracies, Netanyahu’s current term has remained remarkably stable with his seven years over two terms in office making him Israel’s second longest serving leader in history. If he is victorious next month, he will likely rule for another four years, a harsh blow to the peace process.

If President Obama wants to actively support the creation of a Palestinian state during his next term in office, he cannot remain indifferent during the next month before elections—the period of Netanyahu’s greatest vulnerability. Fortunately, Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister still strongly backs a two state solution making diplomatic affairs a central theme of her campaign. Yet, according to recent polls, she is only projected to win approximately 10 seats of the Knesset’s 120, far from having the ability to be a viable diplomatic partner for Obama. It is true that Obama could not singlehandedly swing the election in Livni’s favor but he does have influence. In the 1999 elections, one of the issues that hurt Netanyahu in the campaign was the perceived deteriorating ties between Israel and America while he was Prime Minister.

After Obama’s recent electoral victory in November, his influence has strengthened as international leaders realize that he will remain in office for another four years. Furthermore, Obama supported Israel’s right to defend itself during the November Gaza conflict, disputing a popular notion in the country that he is “anti-Israel.” America’s provided approximately half of the funding for the Iron Dome; This system shot down hundreds of Hamas rockets saving countless Israeli lives. Obama has amassed impressive capital in Israel due to his actions; this is the appropriate time for him to expend it for the peace process.

One method would be for him to grant multiple interviews to the main television stations and newspapers, a practice he has done sparingly until this point. This would provide him more intimate access to the Israeli public and a forum to better make his case. He would not need to overtly support one specific candidate, but rather emphasize the importance of a Palestinian state. Obama should mention the rewards for Israel in firmly investing in this cause such as additional weapons funding and an upgraded security ties along with the risks of Israeli harmful steps including a condemnation at the U.N. Security Council, a reduction in the billions of dollars in American foreign aid, or even a tariff on settlement goods. Clearly explaining to the Israeli public that American support has limits, especially in the face of settlement building in the West Bank that harms U.S. interests, may impact voters.

Another tool that Obama could use in the upcoming period would be to appoint a widely respected envoy to the position of Special American Representative to the peace process similar to Dennis Ross during the 1990’s. During the past years, a mid level State Department diplomat has filled this role with little success. However, if Obama would select someone like former President Bill Clinton, an official with years of experience in the region who is popular on both sides, this would dramatically impact the process. No longer would Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas be able to ignore the envoy’s statements. Unfortunately, while Obama visited Turkey and neighboring Egypt early in his presidency, he never toured Israel and the Palestinian territories. Although it appears unlikely at this stage for an Obama visit, such an action could dramatically refocus Middle Eastern perceptions about the peace process.

After the recent E-1 settlement announcement in the West Bank, France and Great Britain loudly voiced their objections. Nonetheless, European influence on Israeli public opinion is limited due to their perceived bias against Israel. America has a unique potential role to play in this process because of its strong ties with Israel and clout within the international community. While Obama has repeatedly called for a pivot to Asia, he must not ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict. The stakes are too high.

About the Author
Aaron Magid is a Staff Writer for the Jerusalem Review. He has written articles on Middle East politics for The Forward and The Jerusalem Post and has lived in Morocco, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. He can be reached via twitter @AaronMagid