If only he really meant it. During his joint press conference yesterday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, President Obama addressed the tension between the United States and Israel by saying that American policy toward the Middle East must be rooted in reality. The remark was yet another White House jab at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-election comments about not allowing a Palestinian state to be created on his watch. The president said that Netanyahu’s statement, even after he had walked it back after his election victory, had changed the reality of the region and that the U.S. can’t base future strategy on events that couldn’t happen. Fair enough. But what the president failed to note was that this is exactly what he has been doing throughout his presidency with respect to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president’s latest shot over Netanyahu’s bow was not meant to be subtle:
I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years. … What we can’t do is to pretend there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to, for the sake of our own credibility; I think we have to be able to be honest about that.
The unspoken threat there—made more explicit in comments leaked to the press by officials speaking without direct attribution—was that the U.S. would reevaluate its willingness to stand up for Israel at the United Nations and other international forums. By making it clear that he doesn’t believe the two-state solution is possible in the foreseeable future, Netanyahu had not merely offended Obama but gave him the opportunity to fundamentally change U.S. policy in a way that would tilt it even more toward the Palestinians and against the Jewish state.
The justification for such a switch will be to head off what Obama called the possibility of complications from Netanyahu’s candor:
That may trigger, then, reactions by the Palestinians that, in turn, elicit counter-reactions by the Israelis. And that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that will be dangerous for everybody and bad for everybody.
That means Obama believes he must address Palestinian distress at Netanyahu’s foreclosing the possibility of their getting an independent state. The president is right about the possibility of a surge in violence, but not about its cause.
There’s not much secret that Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s statements stems largely from his anger about the prime minister’s decisive victory, coming as it did after he spoke to Congress in opposition to the president’s push for a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran. But the problem here is not so much the way the Israeli election demonstrated again what a sore loser the president can be. Rather, it is his determination to distort the facts about the conflict to conform to his pre-existing prejudices about both Israel and Netanyahu that makes his reaction so egregious. It is exactly his fixation on peace hinging on Israel’s acceptance of two states that is so inaccurate.
As we’ve noted here too many times to count, the obstacle to a two-state solution has never been Israel’s unwillingness to embrace it. Israeli governments offered the Palestinians statehood and independence in Gaza, a share of Jerusalem, and almost all of the West Bank three times between 2000 and 2008. They were turned down each time. And in spite of what Netanyahu said last week, he accepted the U.S. framework for talks offered by Secretary of State John Kerry and sent his rival Tzipi Livni to work with the Palestinians in talks that even she admitted were blown up by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.
The roadblock to a two-state solution today is the same one that existed when Obama entered office in 2009: the inability of the Palestinian leadership to accept any agreement that would force them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. With Hamas running an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza and his own Fatah still committed to Israel’s eventual destruction, Abbas can’t make peace even if he wanted to do so.
The people of Israel understand this, and that is the reason why the parties of the left have been discredited by the failure of Oslo and the catastrophe of the withdrawal from Gaza that both illustrated that what they had done was to trade land for terror, not peace. Netanyahu’s election victories in 2009, 2013, and this month can be directly traced to the fact that Israelis have done exactly what Obama says he will now do: stop basing their country’s foreign policy on things that can’t happen. They know a two-state solution isn’t possible because they want it while the Palestinians continue to reject it.
Even worse, they also know that Palestinian violence is not a manifestation of frustration with Israel so much as it is based in the ideology of their national movement and indications that the West might abandon the Jewish state. If Hamas is getting ready for another war, as some think possible, it is due to their sense that Obama will leave Israel on its own, not because of Netanyahu’s statements.
If the president were truly interested in a reality-based strategy he would stop pushing the Israelis to do something that even Netanyahu knows most would embrace if it brought a chance for true peace. Instead, he should let the Palestinians know that he will only invest more U.S. effort in the peace process if they give up their century-long quest for Israel’s destruction.
But Obama, who before he was elected spoke about his antipathy for Netanyahu’s Likud and entered office under the delusion that the problem was too much closeness between the U.S. and Israel, is still fixated on Israel. He’s badly in need of a reality check, but if this last week is any indication, he’s just as reluctant to accept his own advice about not basing policy on fantasies as he has ever been.