President Obama came into the White House determined to prioritize the Middle East peace process in 2009. That decision caused him to spend much of his first term immersed in picking fights with the Israeli government while doing nothing to actually advance the chances of peace. Since his 2012 election-year Jewish charm offensive in which such disputes were avoided, the president has largely distanced himself from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, letting Secretary of State John Kerry bear the burden and the opprobrium for pursuing what most savvy observers think is a fool’s errand. But, if today’s report in the New York Times is correct, he may be returning to his old hobby with a vengeance next month and using meetings with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to keep Kerry’s effort alive.
But the most important aspect of another presidential deep dive into the complicated negotiations isn’t about whether it will ultimately succeed. Given the distance between the parties on the main issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, and whether the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it’s doubtful any amount of pressure exerted by the White House on either side will produce the document that will earn Kerry his Nobel Peace Prize. Rather, Obama’s objective is to merely keep the negotiations initiated by the secretary alive by getting Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a framework to keep the talks going beyond the nine-month period originally agreed upon last year. Since, despite some clear misgivings about Kerry’s purpose, the Israelis appear ready to agree to keep talking, the only real variable is whether the Palestinians will do the same. But rather than go along in order to avoid shouldering the blame for the collapse of the peace process, Abbas apparently intends to squeeze the Americans. The question is what will Obama give him in order to win his assent.
Altering the negotiations in his favor was the obvious intent of Abbas’s temper tantrum last week during his meeting with Kerry in Paris. Though widely reported in the Palestinian and Israeli press, Abbas’s fit over what he termed Kerry’s “insane” framework wasn’t even mentioned in the Times account. That means the key points to watch about the Washington meetings is whether Obama will change the framework by discarding its insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or security guarantees in order to keep Abbas talking.
Kerry’s obsessive pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has earned him a lot of criticism from some members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, who wonder what’s the point of their country being badgered to make concessions to Palestinians who show no sign of being willing to end the conflict. Kerry’s approach takes for granted that Israel will give up almost all of the West Bank to create a new Palestinian state in the West Bank for Abbas and Fatah to go along with the one that exists in all but name in Gaza under the rule of Hamas. But Kerry has agreed to some far-reaching security commitments about the disposition of the West Bank that, while arguably impractical because of the commitment of NATO or U.S. troops, still are incompatible with the Palestinian conception of sovereignty. The Kerry framework also leaves the future of Jerusalem open and, more importantly, commits the Palestinians to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
The Jewish state demand has been much abused by Israel’s critics who wrongly claim it is a new and unnecessary demand cooked up by Netanyahu in order to derail the talks. But without it, the Palestinians are not obligating themselves to end the conflict for all time and thus alter the point of their national movement from one of eradicating every vestige of Zionism to a more positive one about building a better life for their people in a partitioned country.
The path to peace won’t be found by soothing Abbas’s rage at being maneuvered into having to accept negotiations when signing a deal is the last thing he wants to do. Rather than returning to his default position of pressuring Netanyahu, the keynote of President Obama’s involvement should be making it clear to Abbas that he must accept the framework. The Israelis have already paid dearly, with concessions that included the release of over 100 Palestinian terrorist murderers and a de facto freeze in settlement building outside of their settlement blocs that would be retained in any agreement, in order to persuade Abbas to come back to the table last year. It would be outrageous for Obama to respond to Palestinian blackmail by simply acquiescing to their demands and expect Israel to proceed without the assurance that the framework will be kept in place.
If the president’s new foray into the peace process blindly follows the familiar pattern of Obama’s past conduct in which Netanyahu is ambushed and then strong-armed into making more concessions to Abbas, it would be grossly unfair. But more than that, it would undermine any chance of ever getting the Palestinians to realize that the price of independence means accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Peace requires a sea change in Palestinian politics. But it will also mean a similar change in the president’s knee-jerk impulse to put the entire onus for the impasse on an Israel that has already proved it is willing to take risks for peace.