Obama Shutters the Peace Process Shop
This week the Obama administration once again declared the peace process, and hopes for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, closed for the season. White House officials stated that an agreement between the two sides "isn't in the cards" during what remains of the Obama presidency.
Having worked on the peace process for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, I can't recall a single administration that ever made such a statement.
This was not the first time President Barack Obama authorized such a declaration; he made a similar statement in March this year. But the timing now -- just before the arrival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and with roughly a year to go in Obama's presidency -- is curious indeed. It's a stunningly honest admission, particularly for a president who set such high goals seven years ago. But was it a wise one? What is the Obama Administration up to?
Reassessment: In the aftermath of the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry's 2013 peace initiative, the chance that negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could produce an agreement on any of the big issues has only gotten worse. Neither leader trusts the other. The gaps on core issues such as Jerusalem are huge. The Palestinian national movement is divided -- Hamas rules in Gaza, while Fatah barely rules in the West Bank, and rules not all in Jerusalem. The recent spate of attacks in Jerusalem was carried out by young Palestinians who don't respect or care about Abbas. Yasser Arafat's image is ubiquitous in Jerusalem and in the territories; Abbas's is rarely seen. It's no wonder, then, that the U.S. administration assessed a deal as unreachable in the next couple of years.
But is honesty the best policy? Some of the administrations in which I served also recognized the long odds stacked against Arab-Israeli peace agreements. But rarely -- if ever -- did they issue presidential statements suggesting that there was no possibility of achieving one. Sometimes presidents did use the absence of progress as leverage to try to get both sides to move forward. Former Secretary of State James Baker famously gave out the White House phone number and urged the parties, particularly the Israelis, to call if and when they were serious. But nobody ever called the peace process off, even when it was pretty clear that there was zero chance to consummate a real agreement. Arabs and Israelis may have known that, at various times, the emperor in Washington had no clothes. But even then, I think that neither they nor we really wanted to admit this. Retaining some measure of hope was always useful, and it was important to at least manage expectations and not create despair.
So what is the Administration Doing? Clearly the Obama administration has come to a different conclusion. Forget the fiction; abandon the game; drop the pretense that there's even a chance for a deal. Declare openly that this president believes there is scant possibility to reach an agreement on his watch. Take away hope. Maybe that will shake things up. Perhaps the administration believes that Netanyahu, facing renewed violence and now lacking the security buffer that a U.S.-led peace process provides, will be put on the spot and will recalculate his positions. Or maybe the president is just tired of pretending that there's something "there there," when really there is not.
If walking away is Washington's strategy, well, it's likely to have no more positive an impact than did the administration's earlier efforts to engage. Abbas will continue to pursue his international campaign to isolate Israel. That effort now carries the U.S. administration's validation that engaging with Israel to reach an agreement is not realistic. And the Israelis will keep on developing settlements and combatting Palestinian terror. Hopefully Netanyahu and Abbas will maintain security cooperation on the West Bank, and Hamas and Israel will avoid another major conflict in Gaza. Maybe the Obama administration has some peace process surprise planned for 2016. But for the now the so-called peace process will exist in the empty space between a two-state solution that's too hard to implement, and one that even the once-hopeful Obama administration believes won't happen on its watch.