At a restaurant in Jerusalem last August, I listened incredulously as two prominent Israeli journalists explained to me that President Obama did not care about a second term. Obama, they told me, was going to forge ahead toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with total disregard for any political fallout. It was Obama’s nature, they each asserted, to put his ideals ahead of pragmatism, and the two-state solution was going to be the greatest achievement of his first — and only — term in office.
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I disagreed, and I told them so. President Obama, like every first-term president, doesn’t want to vacate the Oval Office wearing the sad smile of a leader rejected by his nation. If any character trait of Obama is obvious, it is his ambition. Such men rarely put a cause ahead of a career.
These Israeli journalists must have been scratching their heads lately watching the president’s so-called “move to the middle” during the lame-duck session of Congress. Obama’s compromise on the Bush-era tax rates was the gesture of a politician who did not want to suffer the same fate in 2012 that many fellow Democrats underwent last November.
President Obama is a man who wants, badly, to be reelected, and who can blame him? For his effort, he is now viewed as belonging to neither the Left nor the Right. Conservatives will always see him as a committed leftist, no matter how deftly he scrambles to preserve his office, and many liberals now call him a traitor.
But I also explained to the journalists that I applauded Obama’s initiative in bringing Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table. During that week in late summer, politicians in both Ramallah and Jerusalem were whispering stories about the United States’ “strong-arm” tactics in setting a course toward negotiations.
Yet the failure of those negotiations thus far is not due to Obama’s pragmatism but a brashness not usually suited to foreign affairs. To link the entire negotiating process to a freeze on the building of settlements in East Jerusalem appeared to be a miscalculation of Obama’s from the start.
The question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem involves too many highly inflammatory variables and put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an impossible situation. Netanyahu was willing to pay a political price for joining another round of negotiations, but the U.S. insistence on a settlement freeze of indeterminate length insured the window would stay open only a short length of time. By late November, negotiations were being described as “deadlocked,” with each side blaming the other for the breakdown.
Still, there are signs that at least some Israeli and Palestinian leaders are anxious to return to the table. At a weekly cabinet meeting on December 26, Trade Minister Ben-Eliezer urged the Israeli government to get back to negotiations, “even if it costs us a settlement freeze for a few months.” Ben-Eliezer, a senior labor minister, went even further in stressing the need for more Israeli initiatives:
I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we’ll ask where we were and what we were doing.
The article in Haaretz points out that five Latin American countries have already recognized Palestinian statehood; more seriously, a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, drafted by the Palestinian Authority and unnamed Arab countries, has been circulated to members of the United Nations Security Council.
A copy of the resolution, obtained by Haaretz, states that “Israeli actions in constructing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and are the main obstacle to peace on the basis of a two-state solution.”
The members of the UN Security Council, with the exception of the United States, favor the resolution, which also “condemns all actions by Israel to change the demographic component, character and status of the territories.” A vote on the resolution will likely take place in January when the United States is replaced as the president of the security council by Bosnia and Herzegovina. America will be standing alone if it vetoes the resolution. Whether the Palestinian resolution passes the UN Security Council or not, it will have the effect of further uniting world opinion behind the Palestinian cause of achieving statehood.
Ben-Eliezer is pointing out the obvious: Support for the continuation of the Israeli occupation is waning. Keeping the status quo will only further isolate Israel and isolate its major ally, the United States. A few days prior to the comments of Ben-Eliezer to the cabinet, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in a rare television interview, told Israel’s Channel 2, “We should not give up,” and he thought it was “possible to get this process to move forward.”
A few days later, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for continued negotiations in a speech to Jewish activists: “The quest for peace is important, and my government shall continue to move toward this goal. We want peace, because we don’t want war.”
The stage is set for Obama to reengage the process. During the lame-duck session of Congress, President Obama displayed a remarkable flexibility in dealing with the aftermath of the midterm elections. My New Year’s wish is that he will apply those same skills to reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, making it his number one priority in foreign policy for the second half of his presidency. Obama can leverage the threat of the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, as well as the likelihood of a U.S. veto, in pursuit of a new middle ground on the settlement freeze that brings both Palestine and Israel back to negotiations.
As yet, none of his political achievements has earned President Obama the appellation of “statesman,” but the pressing need for the two-state solution is his opportunity to earn respect even from those who abhor his domestic policy.