Obama Aims for Another Mideast Peace Push by End of Term, White House Officials Say

Washington's final decision and strategy of how to move forward will depend on the makeup of the next Israeli government.

Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.
Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to make a renewed effort to achieve progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the nearly two years he has left in office, senior White House officials told Haaretz.

The final decision on how to move forward, what sort of effort to make and when, will only be made after the March 17 elections in Israel.

“We would like to see the formation of the new government in Israel and its attitude to this issue. But in the year and a half to two years that Obama has left in the White House, we will have to deal with this issue because time is working against us,” a senior official said.

Most of the White House’s attention in recent days has been focused on achieving a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, the crisis in Ukraine and the fight against ISIS. However, senior administration officials said the Palestinian issue is still on the table for Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Further deterioration in ties between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership in recent months has senior administration officials very worried. In Washington the picture is seen as a continually growing crisis – the blowup of the peace talks in March of last year, the deep diplomatic freeze, the war in Gaza last summer, the resolution that the Palestinians tried (unsuccessfully) to get through the UN Security Council, the Palestinians’ signing of the Rome Statute and joining of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the Israeli response of freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax funds.

To all of these must be added the Palestinian Authority’s threats to file more complaints against Israel in the International Criminal Court beginning April 1, when its membership in the court becomes official, and the serious economic consequences in the PA as a result of Israel’s freezing of Palestinian tax payments.

A senior White House official said the Obama administration is concerned over an economic collapse of the PA, which could happen within a few months if the tax money is not released. Such a collapse, the Americans believe, could lead to security chaos and even a violent outbreak.

Kerry spoke last week by phone with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to break the impasse over the tax money. Kerry also asked Arab foreign ministers to transfer money to the Palestinians to prevent the PA’s collapse.

In the immediate future, the U.S. administration wants to stop further Palestinian moves in The Hague on the one hand, and prevent the PA’s collapse on the other. But in the medium- and long-term, Obama and Kerry want to advance Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic initiatives before the end of their term.

“We want to find the right timing to go for another push and try and promote something on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I can’t believe we will not give it a try before the end of 2016,” the senior official said.

Washington’s actions will depend on the makeup and policy of the new Israeli government. An ideal scenario would be another effort to renew negotiations on a permanent status agreement. But the Obama administration is aware that in view of the seriousness of the crisis in the peace process, this may not be very realistic.

But even without renewing talks, there are many diplomatic moves the Americans can make to unfreeze the talks. One idea that has come up repeatedly in administration discussions over the past year is to present to the international community an updated American outline for a solution to the conflict. Such an outline could include the principles of the framework agreement that Kerry, Israel and the PA worked on at the end of 2013 and early 2014, but which did not come to fruition.

A former member of the State Department’s peace team said that in March 2014, in light of the dead end the negotiations had reached, the Americans were on the verge of publishing the framework agreement. Martin Indyk, then U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and his deputy Frank Lowenstein and other senior officials were in favor of the idea.

The framework agreement included clauses such as negotiations based on the 1967 borders with exchanges of territory, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, security arrangements for Israel in the Jordan Valley and a timetable for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.

The intention was to publish the agreement and invite the Israeli and Palestinian teams to Washington to negotiate based on the document’s principles. Abbas and Netanyahu would have had to decide whether to go to Washington or stay home. After long discussions Kerry decided not to publish the document, in the hope that he would be able to persuade Netanyahu and Abbas to extend talks without an American ultimatum. A former member of the American peace team said he believed that today Kerry regrets that decision.

Another possibility for an American initiative after the Israeli elections is to promote a UN Security Council resolution based on the American framework agreement, set principles for resolution of the conflict, and call for a renewal of talks. In this way, even if peace talks do not resume, a new source of international authority will have been determined for resolving the conflict that would not be based on Resolutions 242 and 338, on which talks have been based for the past 40 years.

Last September and October, when the Palestinians and Jordanians as well as the French were promoting two separate resolutions to set principles for resolving the conflict, the Obama administration considered formulating an American resolution. This resolution, in Washington’s view, would have been more balanced and the fact that the United States led it would have assured its passage. In the end, under pressure from then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and former President Shimon Peres, who feared that such a move would strengthen Netanyahu in elections, the Americans did not propose a resolution. Today both Kerry and Livni are said to regret that move.