How Obama plans to create a virtual Palestinian state – The Washington Post
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace process and no prospect of starting one – at least one that would lead to an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on core issues like borders anytime soon. Amid increasing violence on the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are not suddenly about to discover mutual trust or a shared vision. Asked in a recent interview what kind of Middle East he wanted to leave to his successors, President Obama didn’t even mention the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The president has certainly sobered on the issue and lowered his expectations. Gone are the hopes of an actual agreement on final status. But that doesn’t mean Obama or his secretary of state have abandoned the idea altogether, according to administration sources and European diplomats who talk to them. Even if progress means more tension with Israel’s prime minister, the White House is determined to keep trying. And if the only way to improve the status quo is to change it himself, say those sources who are familiar with the administration’s thinking on this problem, then that’s what Obama will have to do. They have even suggested as much publicly.
Right now and perhaps well into the fall, the administration’s priority is selling the Iran deal. But that could be a temporary stand down. Israeli-Palestinian peace has always been a presidential priority: Two days after his inauguration, he appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy on the peace process. You’d have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find a president willing to invest so quickly in the Arab-Israeli issue. The president came out pushing for a comprehensive freeze on settlements, called for an agreement within a year and empowered more than a year of intensive efforts by his secretary of state to secure one. Although his tactics have not always paid off, he was clearly devoted to a two-state strategy. And Obama’s list of recent accomplishments -– Trade Promotion Authority, Cuban rapprochement, the Iran deal, climate-change regulations — suggest that he is hardly preparing to coast out of office.
He is not the only one animated by dream of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kerry, too, cares deeply and has spoken often about it during his time in the Senate. While he hasn’t talked recently about the subject, thanks to his focus on the Iran deal, he also rejected the notion that peace as a pipe dream in December 2014, months after another failed peace initiative. Obama’s remaining year in office is a long time. And recent violence in the West Bank reveals an uneasy status quo that could explode at any time — not an outcome the president would want to hover over his departure in January 2017, which means Kerry could spend the next year devoted to something significant.
The options do look pretty bleak. The notion of an agreement between Abbas and Netanyahu on the core issues, like Jerusalem or 1967 borders, seem remote. Nor will Israel’s seize the initiative to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. Building on his 2013-2014 initiative, Kerry could explore (again) with Israel and the Palestinians what it would take to get a serious negotiation up and running. But given the mistrust between Obama and Netanyahu, and between Netanyahu and Abbas, this seems like a remote possibility.
That leaves one alternative — embracing the terms of a two state solution either as a unilateral U.S. initiative act, the so-called Obama parameters, or as a multilateral act in the form of a U.N. Security Council resolution. The point would be to put the United States on record reaffirming the basic elements of a two-state solution. The longstanding U.N. Resolution 242, adopted in 1967, blesses a trade of territory for peace, but the update would enshrine more detail about the basic terms for a deal. Indeed the French and key Arab states already have a draft. Whether the administration could get the Palestinians on board or trade such a resolution to get them to stand down on their international campaign at the ICC to bring war-crimes charges against Israel is unclear. And this maneuver wouldn’t create an actual sovereign Palestinian state. But if the administration officials can’t leave two states as a real legacy, then they’ll try to promote a virtual one.
Should the administration pursue the higher profile more risky U.N. route, the Israelis and many in Congress will cry foul and argue that the Obama administration is prejudging the terms of a final-status agreement. But time’s running out and, once the Iran deal is done, alienating an Israeli prime minister who has opposed key Middle East initiatives (Iran, peace) is probably not going to keep the president up at night.
It’s a lonely and not particularly productive play, but it’s the only one left. Based on my 20 years working on the peace process, doing something rather than nothing seems to be the American default position. It won’t be long before the White House returns to form.