Commentary Magazine


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Like Bibi, Obama May Just Want to Manage Middle East Conflict

There are conflicting reports about a meeting held yesterday between President Obama and some 25 figures from the American Jewish community, including many of his supporters, in advance of his trip to Israel later this month. The Times of Israel says that one of the participants claimed the president said he would present a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East sometime in the next year. But JTA’s report based on a larger sample of participants dishing about the event contradicts that statement. That was backed up by a denial issued by a senior administration official who told the Times of Israel that there was no “framework” for peace mentioned at the meeting.

The consensus about the meeting is that, as one person who quoted the president to JTA said, there would be no “grandiose” plans for peace presented to the Israelis when he arrives for his long-awaited visit. Though the president will be holding out hope that the current “bleak” prospects for peace will improve, the notion that Obama would risk any of his scarce political capital by trying to impose terms of a peace plan on Israel that the Palestinians are not interested in is absurd. Though Obama will put himself on record as opposing Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian attempts to avoid negotiations via the United Nations, he appears to be only interested in keeping the situation calm. After four years of antagonism with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as his Israeli counterpart. At least for now, he’s done trying to solve the conflict and only wants to manage it as well as possible.

That probably comes as a surprise as well as a shock to many of Obama’s most ardent Jewish supporters who would like him to ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu, as well as to his greatest critics who harbor the suspicion that his goal is bring the Jewish state to its knees. It may be that were circumstances different, the president might well come closer to making those hopes and fears come true. But right now, Obama has higher priorities than pursuing his feud with Netanyahu.

That won’t preclude the president from trying to arrange a grand gesture, such as a summit at which Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will join Obama and Netanyahu for a photo op. But even those observers, like myself, who don’t trust Obama, need to give him credit for having paid some attention to what the Palestinians have failed to do over the last four years. The Palestinians have made it clear that they have no intention of signing a peace agreement that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. That means a solution to the conflict is impossible in the foreseeable future and that the only logical approach to it is one that seeks to manage it while preventing conflagrations.

As the reports from the meeting and other signs coming from Washington show, the president seems to understand that the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear threat has eclipsed the Palestinian issue as a priority. While Obama is trying to dampen any expectations that his visit to Jerusalem might restart the peace process, the one thing he may hope to accomplish there is to ensure that the Israelis refrain from any unilateral strike on Iran.

In order to do that, he has to show that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and can be trusted to do the right thing on any security-related issue. That’s a tall order given the president’s low popularity in Israel, but the trip could go a long way toward repairing the faith the average Israeli has in Washington’s good will. It may do just that provided, that is, the president doesn’t do or say anything that can be interpreted as revealing his disdain for the Jewish state.

As much as both the left and the right are seeking to figure out the specific motives for the trip, making a symbolic statement of Obama’s support for Israel that will give America the leeway to act on Iran at its own pace may be the only plausible answer.

There are good reasons to worry that the president’s reluctance to, as JTA says, do any “chest beating” about Iran may be a symptom of his lack of urgency about the issue or his reluctance to actually take action before it is too late. There’s little reason to believe diplomacy or sanctions can work after years of failure. But if Obama can finally convince Israelis that he should be trusted, its likely they will give him all the time he asks for. As much as there is still a wide gap between the positions Obama and Netanyahu may have on Iran, it may be that, at least for the moment, they are on the same page when it comes to the Palestinians.