Obama's Chance to Connect With Israelis and Promote Peace - Despite Netanyahu

The American president should take into account that most Israelis are more open and flexible than their PM to the message that there are ways to move toward compromise with the Palestinians without harming Israel’s security.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Few American presidents have been elected into a messier situation than Barack Obama. He inherited both a crumbling economy and a number of foreign policy messes from his predecessor George W. Bush: a badly managed war in Afghanistan, a superfluous one in Iraq, and an Israeli-Palestinian conflict further away than ever from resolution.

On top of this he got Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, and this, so far, has been an unpalatable experience: Netanyahu dragged him through endless pre-negotiations, then undermined him in the U.S. by quite openly supporting his rival Mitt Romney. It would not be surprising if Obama said he had no intention to deal with Netanyahu ever again.

A number of important commentators have reproached Obama for dodging difficult foreign-policy decisions in his first term. Nevertheless Obama has decided to do what he has avoided doing in his first term: come to Israel. The question is whether he can play a more constructive role here than he has in his first term, given that his nemesis is about to form Israel’s next government.

Let’s start with the obvious: Netanyahu seemed untouchable during Obama’s first term, whereas the American president was bogged down with severe domestic and foreign problems and looked weak. Now Obama is in a strong position whereas Netanyahu’s situation is more than shaky. At this point it looks like he will have a functioning new government only days before Obama lands.

In addition, Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry will have at least one minister in Israel’s next government who actually means business with the peace process: Tzipi Livni will be in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni accumulated extensive experience in negotiating with the Palestinians when she was foreign minister under Ehud Olmert, and has long-standing relations with central figures in the Palestinian leadership.

This doesn’t mean that prospects are rosy: Netanyahu will still be prime minister, and he has not changed. As Aluf Benn has pointed out, Netanyahu is still loath to territorial concessions as he has always been, possibly even more so during a period of increased instability in the Middle East. Furthermore Netanyahu will probably have Habayit Hayehudi in his next government, and Naftali Bennett has repeatedly made clear that he does not accept the very idea of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.

What can Obama and Kerry do under these circumstances? First and foremost they should look at the most viable proposal to move forward on Israel/Palestine in the last years put forward last year by Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima and former defense minister. He suggested Israeli recognition of Palestine within temporary borders and withdrawal from 60 percent of the West Bank. This would leave more than 99 percent of Palestinians free from Israeli rule and would engender immediate, substantial improvements of quality of life for most Palestinians, while leaving Israel in control of the most sensitive areas for its security.

Mofaz also suggested that Israel make a firm commitment that Palestine would, at the end of the process, include the pre-1967 territories with agreed-upon land swaps. This is a plan that would assuage Israeli security concerns while assuring Palestinians they would not get stuck with the status quo under a different name. The plan is eminently reasonable, practical, makes a lot of sense, and Obama should endorse it. It gives realistic hope to Palestinians and is acceptable for the large majority of Israelis who continue to be committed to the two-state solution.

As for tactics, Obama and Kerry will have to wait and see what coalition Netanyahu will put together. One option is that Netanyahu will end up with a narrow coalition based on Bennett’s extreme right-wing Habayit Hayehudi, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Livni. The bad news is that such a government is very unlikely to make true progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it is also unlikely to last long, as Netanyahu will be under heavy fire from several fronts and without much room to maneuver, as he likes doing.

The other option is that Lapid’s Yesh Atid will join the government, and, as unlikely as it seems now, it is not impossible that Yacimovich’s Labor might join either with Lapid or without him. This would give Netanyahu more stability but would also force him to be more constructive towards the Palestinians.

In either case Obama and Kerry need to take into account that they will not score any quick successes and that they will need some patience. If Obama wants to affect change and leave a mark in the Middle East, he must not let Netanyahu dictate the terms this time.

Obama also has the opportunity to start building a positive relationship with the Israeli people. He can tell them that he is truly committed to their security, and that he wants to be of assistance. As I have suggested before, he should take into account that most Israelis are more open and flexible than Netanyahu to the message that there are ways to move towards compromise with the Palestinians without harming Israel’s security.

Then-Senator Obama visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2008. Credit: Jini

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