Late in his rookie year as President, in 2009, President Barack Obama made a serious mistake. He convinced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a ten-month freeze on West Bank settlement building outside the major settlement blocks. The idea was to set a new and positive atmosphere for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu was reluctant. Never before had negotiations been linked to a hiatus in settlement construction. But Obama thought he had the winning strategy. The Israeli Prime Minister, having declared in June 2009 that Israel was committed to a two state solution, assented to the new President’s initiative. The Israeli cabinet agreed and Netanyahu issued the unprecedented order.
President Mahmoud Abbas, channeling his mentor, Yasir Arafat, knew just how to respond. And that was to do nothing. For nine months he refused to sit down with the Israelis. When he finally came to the table in month ten and the talks got nowhere, Abbas predictably demanded that the freeze be extended in order for negotiations to continue. Netanyahu, having had enough, said no. The negotiations came to a crashing end.
The so-called “peace process” never recovered from Obama’s rookie mistake.
For the rest of Obama’s presidency, Abbas has insisted as a precondition to negotiations that Israel must cease all settlement construction. Or, in connection with Secretary John Kerry’s ill-fated peace initiative in 2013-2014, Abbas deigned to engage in talks, but only in exchange for Israel agreeing to release over one hundred Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of murdering Israeli civilians.
After all, as it came to be said, the Palestinians couldn’t permit the Americans to be “more Palestinian than the Palestinians.”
To this day, while Netanyahu repeatedly calls for direct negotiations without any preconditions, the Palestinians, now channeling Obama, refuse. They will not negotiate unless settlement building ceases or their celebrated terrorists are released from Israeli prisons.
Obama’s early misstep could – and should – have turned out differently. Had the new President learned something from having been played by the Palestinians, he would have gained critical insight into the dynamics of the Middle East. That would have helped in him dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other regional players.
It didn’t happen.
Obama was not the first U.S. president to be manipulated by the Palestinians in connection with negotiations. Bill Clinton, who had embraced Arafat at the failed Camp David talks during July 2000, eventually realized that Arafat was a fraud and had betrayed his trust. When Arafat walked away from the “Clinton Parameters,” Clinton’s final peace proposal in the last days of his presidency, Clinton famously said to Arafat, who had just referred to him as a “great man, “The hell I am, I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”
Obama neither learned from Clinton’s experience nor his own. Abbas’ dawdling for nine months of the unprecedented ten month freeze was not just a slap in Obama’s face, it was a glaring public statement that Abbas was playing Obama just like Arafat had played Clinton. Yet, Obama did not change course.
Obama failed to see that the peace process was a failure because the Palestinian leaders were not negotiating for peace, they were negotiating for tactical advantage. They were using the process to further their goal to delegitimize Israel.
Unfortunately, it may not be over. For months, there has been speculation that Obama is preparing a November surprise. After the election he may either support or abstain from a new U.N. Security Council Resolution that would set the terms for resolving the conflict, likely focusing on West Bank settlements. The new resolution could supersede Resolution 242.
Resolution 242, adopted at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, is widely interpreted as recognizing that, for security concerns, Israel will hold on to some key areas of the West Bank as part of a final status peace agreement. (And, indeed, in prior negotiations, Palestinians had indicated agreement to certain “land swaps.”) This resolution has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy for 50 years.
Alternatively, the President may lay down his own parameters for a future peace process, likely casting Israel’s West Bank settlements as the principal impediment to a solution to the conflict.
Reportedly, Kerry recently told Netanyahu that the administration “has not yet made a decision.”
It would be tragic, indeed, if Obama’s presidency were to be bookended by naïve and counterproductive forays into the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In the first instance, it’s not just that the President is a lame duck, but his efforts to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians have failed repeatedly. And his successor may be his own Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Why then would he presume in the waning moments of his administration to hamstring his successor, whoever it turns out to be, with any strictures or minimum requirements for a future deal? (For just that reason, Clinton did not present his final Parameters to the parties in writing.)
Secondly, laying responsibility for the continuing conflict at the feet of the Israelis due to West Bank settlements will only embolden the Palestinian rejectionists and alienate the Israeli center. It could make future bilateral negotiations, another hallmark of U.S. policy, all but impossible.
And finally, if the President allows the Security Council to cast Resolution 242 aside, or if he lays down his own negotiating parameters, does he intend to temper the effects by telling the truth to the Palestinians? Will he demand that Palestinians unambiguously acknowledge the reality of Israel as a Jewish state? Will the President insist that the Palestinians abandon their so-called right of return – which is another way of calling for a two-Palestinian-state solution? Based on experience, it’s doubtful that he will. He knows that the Palestinians will reject these basic components of peace-making, no matter what he or the U.N. says about settlements.
There is no doubt President Obama is a man of intelligence and personal integrity. But his rigidity and inability to change course, irrespective of new and countervailing facts, has been a serious, if not tragic, flaw in his leadership. The prospect that now, at the end of his presidency, he will repeat a variation of the same mistakes he made in during his first year, would prove that assessment.
President Obama, you had your chance. Like your predecessors, you did not succeed. It’s now time to leave it to your successor.