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Obama's unfinished business

Barack Obama may become the first US president since Lyndon Johnson not to leave his signature on an advancement in the peace process.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the press briefing held by senior White House staff Nov. 5 on the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. They said that not only is there no chance of reaching a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement during the time left in President Barack Obama’s last term, but further negotiations will also have to wait for the next president. Coming after these statements and preceding Obama's Nov. 9 meeting with Netanyahu, the declaration by the president that he intended to speak with his guest about ways to return to the peace process sounded hollow and even grating. Obama also stated, “Israel has not just the right but the obligation to defend itself.” Ok, but what about the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against settler violence and the commitment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to ending the settlement enterprise? 

If Obama refuses to withdraw his “resignation” as senior mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, he will leave his successor scorched earth between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It would mark the first time since Lyndon Johnson's administration that a US president left the White House without writing a note on the unfinished symphony of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Richard Nixon delivered the “separation of forces agreement” between Israel and Egypt. Gerald Ford will go down in history for his “reassessment” of US-Israeli relations, a threat that contributed to the acceptance of those agreements. Jimmy Carter is mentioned in the same breath as the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Ronald Reagan opened the dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); George H.W. Bush organized the 1991 Madrid Conference. Bill Clinton was the matchmaker for the Oslo B agreement and the Hebron Accord. George W. Bush put forward the “roadmap” and assembled the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States). Obama entered the Middle East pantheon as the champion of peace speeches. For now, he gets a 10 for speechmaking, and a 0 for actions. On one grave note, during his presidency the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased considerably, from about 297,000 to nearly 400,000.

In April 2014, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry described the collapse of the futile negotiations he had orchestrated for nine months: “Unfortunately, the [Palestinian] prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released … Day (one) went by, day two went by, day three went by, and then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Twenty months have since passed with absolutely no American action on the peace process. In effect, it is more correct to say that the time has passed with the Americans putting up roadblocks to alternative diplomatic paths, the foremost of which is recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN Security Council on the basis of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

When diplomatic paths are blocked for the Palestinian people, they have nothing left but to accept the continued occupation and its injustices or to take off on the path of violence. Today the Palestinian public is divided between these two directions. It is hard to find a Palestinian who hangs his or her hopes on negotiations with Israel. It’s equally hard to find an Israeli who believes that an end to the conflict would get any closer if talks resumed in the format introduced by the US negotiation teams. 

Rob Malley, a veteran of US negotiating teams, has now served for several months as special assistant to the president and is national security coordinator for the Middle East. Malley is the one who said at that press briefing that Obama would like to hear from Netanyahu about what he is willing to do to move the current situation forward. The main topic on which the president will want to hear from Netanyahu, he noted, is “what can be done in the absence of negotiations … to help stabilize the situation on the ground and to signal … that they are still committed to and moving toward a two-state solution even if they’re not in a position today to talk to one another about it.”

If this weren’t so sad, it would be laughable. Netanyahu is interested in moving forward? On what kind of cart and in what direction can he move with Ministers Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev as the front wheels and Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked as the back wheels? Who is the horse who can move the cart out of the settlements and the outposts growing like weeds? The prime minister? The one who promised on the eve of the March 17 elections that on his watch a Palestinian state will never be created? The one who said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has “joined Hamas and [IS] [in claiming that Israel threatens al-Aqsa Mosque]”? 

Once again, we hear the choir of presidential advisers singing the same old tune of “confidence-building measures,” heralding yet another failed American attempt to end the conflict and lift the occupation. Malley had stood alongside President Bill Clinton at the 2000 Camp David summit, the stinging failure of which pushed the two peoples another step closer to the second intifada. At the November press briefing he sat next to the president's senior adviser, Ben Rhodes, who said that Obama will want to hear “what type of confidence-building measures can be pursued … to leave open the promise of a two-state solution.” This, in other words, is a retreat to the days of conflict management based on the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute can wait quietly for better days. We’ll throw the Palestinians a few more bones, and they'll behave nicely toward their occupier until Americans elect a new president in November, until he or she enters the White House in January 2017, until he or she brushes up on the issue, ad infinitum. Just a little patience, and soon we’ll celebrate a half-century of occupation — sorry, that is, the redemption of Judea and Samaria. 

An important article published in 2001 in the New York Review of Books on the failure of the Camp David talks states, “America’s political and cultural affinity with Israel translated into an acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns.” It further asserts, “The US team often pondered whether [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak could sell a given proposal to his people, including some he himself had made. The question rarely, if ever, was asked about [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat.” The author of the article is Robert Malley, along with Hussein Agha, a former aide to Abbas. 

Some 15 years have passed since that summit, and once again Malley is at the center of the action. The same miserable ideas and considerations have led to a deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli affairs. To stop the cart from skidding down the slippery slope, a totally new approach and bold advisers are needed. No more direct negotiations and so-called confidence-building measures that only increase despair and push the two peoples closer to the abyss. As Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result is insanity. ​

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