clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama’s best chance to influence the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will come after he leaves office

President Obama speaks in Cairo, in 2009.
In a speech in 2009 in Cairo, President Obama said that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

Weeks before the Election Day, when he still assumed Hillary Clinton would be his successor, Barack Obama told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that he would be an activist ex-president, tackling unspecified challenges “that in some ways I suspect I’m able to do better out of this office.” The restraints and obligations of the office, he explained, had sometimes prevented him from pursuing “what I believe would move the ball down the field on the issues I care most deeply about.”

Trump’s victory means that there will be more call than he expected to wield his moral authority across a range of issues. But one challenge that he might have had in mind, during the Goodwin interview, was the plight of the Palestinians. This was an issue that he had initially signaled in word and deed would be a priority for his administration, but on which he has been thwarted, and restrained by political constraints.

Alarmed at Israel’s steady and deliberate erosion of the geographic and political platform for Palestinian statehood, some Washington insiders have urgently advocated for President Obama to use his final months in office to issue “parameters” for a two-state solution, and seek their ratification by the United Nations Security Council. Although they had pushed this option on the assumption that Clinton would be elected, some peace advocates — expecting a Trump Administration through act or omission to effectively endorse Israel’s retreat from the two-state outcome — view it as all the more urgent now for Obama to seek an international declaration of what belongs to Israel and what does not.

Such parameters would reaffirm principles that have become familiar over years of negotiations: A Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem, its borders to be adjusted (to fold in large settlement blocs) by land swaps of equal value; and a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue focused on resettlement in a Palestinian state rather than in the location of their original homes.

Advocates of the move see setting parameters as a vital intervention to save the two-state solution by codifying it, once again, in international law, and providing a non-negotiable international framework to provide political cover for concessions by any future negotiators.

But for Obama to set parameters could do more harm than good, because US domestic political constraints would likely ensure any parameters put on the table by the White House would fall short of the international consensus and law, and be tilted in Israel’s favor. The Palestinians would be required to accept more concessions than they’ve already made, while Israel would almost certainly, and with impunity, ignore any such international declaration. After all, while a UNSC resolution passed in 1980 (when settlers numbered a few thousand) declared all Israeli settlement in territories captured in the war of June 1967 a violation of international law, today there are a half million Israelis living in those territories.

Absent external pressure that changes Israel’s cost-benefit analysis, diplomatic proclamations will not alter the reality on the ground. That’s why President Obama’s more important contribution could come after his presidency, when he’s free to use his powers of persuasion to generate moral pressure on the Israeli state.

Ending the conflict was high on Obama’s agenda — at first

It’s easy to forget the extent to which, early in his tenure, President Obama had prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas was the first foreign leader he called from the White House, and on his second day in office, Obama tasked Senator George Mitchell with brokering the Oslo Agreement’s elusive final-status agreement on a two-state solution to resolve the conflict.

A mere five months into his presidency, the President put the attainment of Palestinian rights and dignity at the center of the Middle East peace vision he outlined in his historic address to the Muslim world delivered at Cairo University. There, Obama not only recognized the Palestinians as victims of an historic trauma of dispossession, displacement and subjugation as a result of Israel’s creation and of the occupation that began in 1967; he declared an American obligation to support their struggle for sovereignty.

His words are worth recalling in some detail:

It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

Obama’s efforts to breathe new vigor into an Oslo Process that had been comatose for the best part of a decade by the time he took office quickly floundered — a tale of vain diplomatic entreaties that illustrate the morose absurdity of expecting success when repeating the just-get-them-talking pattern that had delivered a decade-plus of failure. The profound imbalance of leverage between the two sides militates against open-ended bilateral talks producing any solution — there’s nothing Israel needs, day to day, from the Palestinians that it isn’t already getting.

The Oslo Accords signed in 1993 had committed Israel and the PLO to mutual recognition and choreographed sequence of reciprocal steps under the rubric of a land-for-peace formula. It created the Palestinian Authority to administer the cities of the West Bank and Gaza and provide security for Israel pending the negotiation of a final-status agreement to end the conflict — assumed by both sides to mean a Palestinian state. But the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, followed by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose campaign was centered on virulent opposition to Oslo — and a campaign of suicide bombings by Hamas, which had been just as virulently opposed to Oslo — put the outcome in doubt. Ehud Barak, who beat Netanyahu in the 1999 election made a desultory attempt to conclude Oslo at Camp David, but the failure of those talks was followed quickly by the second Palestinian Intifada — and then by the election of another Oslo-rejectionist, Ariel Sharon, early in 2001. Sharon declared Oslo dead and buried, and found support from the Bush Administration, particularly after 9/11, for deferring diplomacy in favor of security solutions.

So, Obama took office facing a far-from auspicious outlook for concluding a peace agreement: Israel’s national consensus that had abandoned the promise of Oslo, and a politically stable leadership had made clear it will not allow a Palestinian state for the foreseeable future; and the legitimacy and influence of the Palestinian political forces that had championed the two-state formula was in deep decline

Oslo lives on mostly in the rhetoric of passive Western politicians

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who built his political career on staunch opposition to the Oslo process, is both an orchestrator and an expression of the post-peace consensus. Sure, Netanyahu has rhetorically accepted a two-state solution (a nod to international diplomatic consensus), although that acceptance was immediate qualified by publically making clear to his rejectionist base that this had been a purely rhetorical statement for international consumption.

Today, after successfully changing the subject in US-Israel relations to Iran’s nuclear program — and amid the chaos in Syria — Netanyahu relinquishes even his ritual obeisance to the two-state principle, instead bluntly dismissing the possibility of Palestinian statehood for the foreseeable future.

All that survives of Oslo today are those elements that are useful to Israel: The Western-funded administrative and security institutions of the Palestinian Authority that were once intended as a transitional vehicle for a journey towards Palestinian statehood, but today are an integral part of the status quo. The stability of the PA is now based on a combination of repression and the fact that more than one in three West Bank Palestinian households depends on a PA salary.

Israel’s leaders and public are deaf to warnings by US officials and the remnants of the Israeli “peace camp” that the status quo is not tenable, because such warnings don’t jibe with their experience: For Israel, the occupation has no downside. For three quarters of Israel’s lifespan as a nation state, its flag has flown over the territories conquered in 1967.

Israelis are unmoved by the warning that they face a choice between being a Jewish state and a democratic one, or the alarm sounded by the likes of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, as well as former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary of State John Kerry that the “apartheid” reality created by the occupation threatens international isolation along the lines suffered by South Africa’s white minority regime in the 1980s. (Kerry later apologized for his word choice, in a classic illustration of the domestic political constraints cited by Obama on the US administration’s ability to speak uncomfortable truths .)

Israel’s strategic context — and its domestic politics — have changed fundamentally over the quarter century since Oslo. Today, Israel feels none of the external pressure it felt in the early 1990s to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and its leadership and citizenry are more than comfortable with the status quo.

As former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy has astutely observed, profound demographic and political changes have occurred in both Israel and Palestinian society. Israel has been altered by the arrival of one million Russian immigrants in the early ‘90s — a disproportionately hawkish, anti-Oslo group — and by the growth in ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist settler communities. Israeli governance today is more stable than it has ever been, and it has coalesced around the political forces that opposed the Oslo process from the outset.

Nor has Oslo fared much better on the Palestinian side, where the corrupt authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority’s institutions, combined with a failure to deliver on Oslo’s promise of ending the occupation, has left the national political institutions identified with the agreement — namely, the PLO and Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority itself —palpably decrepit.

Polls show that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians now both reject pursuing the Oslo Process, which lives on mostly in the rhetoric of Western leaders where it serves to rationalize their own passivity on the issue.

The total number of Israelis settled illegally in the occupied territories has tripled since the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, and the steady expansion of settlements negated prospects for a viable, contiguous and independent Palestinian state.

At this point, placing hope in UN resolutions is misguided

Recognizing Trump’s election as ending prospects for reviving Oslo, some observers have placed unwarranted hopes in a "parameters" scheme unlikely to be move the ball down the field, both because of how US domestic politics would likely still shape those parameters, and the likelihood that Israel would simply ignore them.

Other parameters-skeptics have instead proposed that Obama seek U.N. action focused on the narrow question of settlements rather than on outlining the contours of a future peace agreement. With Netanyahu’s settler coalition partners celebrating Trump’s victory as an historic opportunity to deepen their expansion, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf argues that Obama should, before leaving office, endorse — or, at least, refraining from vetoing — a Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlement outside the 1967 lines. By simply withholding its veto, the Obama Administration would acknowledge that there is no longer any US-led process for ending the occupation, a process whose existence has for a quarter century been used to deter other international parties from taking action.

“A new Security Council resolution,” writes Sheizaf, “could help end Washington’s monopoly on the issue and give the international community a new mechanism for containing and confronting Israeli settlement activity… It would make the Israeli government think twice before carrying out some of its more far-reaching plans, and thus reduce the potential for violence on the ground.”

He concludes, “If a Security Council resolution leads the international community to effectively engage with reality on the ground, it might prove to be more consequential than any other option on the table

Sheizaf’s proposal is the more promising and achievable diplomatic step that Obama can take during his last days in the Oval Office. But that’s not when his contribution should end. Once Obama leaves office he could wield his moral authority in a critically important effort to push back against the domestic political obstacles that had restrained him as President from serving as a truly even-handed broker,.

Here, it’s worth revisiting the moral and political clarity of his 2009 Cairo Speech, promoting Palestinian freedom without compromising Israeli security. Obama’s address, in a telling observation by the New York Times, “infuriated some Israelis and American backers of Israel because they saw the speech as elevating the Palestinians to equal status.”

Exactly. US Middle East policy has for too long been based on a premise that values Palestinian lives and rights less than Israeli lives and rights — so much so that to simply accord them equal value was deemed a transgression by those policing Washington’s pro-Israel consensus.

The demand for an even-handed US policy based on human rights and equality is gaining momentum in American public discourse, even if it does not yet influence the Washington policy process. Senator Bernie Sanders broke taboo during the primary campaign by speaking forcefully in support of Palestinian rights and equality, castigating Secretary Clinton for failing to even mention the Palestinians in her address to AIPAC.

Nor will the denial of Palestinian equality be tolerated by the growing movement of Americans of color challenging police violence, fighting for immigration rights or challenging infringements on Native American rights. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has wholeheartedly embraced the Palestinian cause, backing the call for economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and for US policy to do the same. And activists from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, led by Cornel West, made an impassioned plea for the US to embrace the cause of Palestinian civil rights during the debate over the Democratic Party program last summer, reflecting the sentiments of the party’s progressive wing, whose influence is likely to grow in the wake of Clinton’s defeat.

The link between civil rights struggles in the United States and those of the Palestinians living under occupation was explicitly drawn by President Obama himself in Cairo:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia, to Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: violence is a dead end.

By urging them to embrace the example of the US Civil Rights struggle, Nelson Mandela’s ANC and Gandhi’s passive resistance, Obama likened the Palestinian plight to that of black people under apartheid in South Africa, colonization in India and Jim Crow in America.

Once out of office, Obama needs to explain to Americans precisely how and why, as he said in Cairo, the Palestinians are an oppressed people suffering dispossession and occupation, confronted by the same choices that the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi once faced. Drawing attention to Palestinian human rights in the half-century and counting of Israeli rule in all of the territory west of the Jordan River will also get the Israelis’ attention, because of the intolerance previously demonstrated by the international community — and even US civil society — for South Africa’s apartheid, whose very essence was a state denying the rights of citizenship to a whole category of people over which it ruled.

Obama’s greatest legacy for achieving peace in the Middle East may lie less in diplomatic parameters, than in helping reverse the imbalance in leverage — by convincing Americans that Palestinian lives matter.

Tony Karon is a former senior editor at Time and editorial director of Al Jazeera America online. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at