White House Deliberations Over Obama's Legacy Leave Jerusalem Worried

Less than a year before the U.S. president leaves office, no one knows what he intends to do, if anything, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Obama attends a meeting at the National Security Council at the U.S. State Department, Washington February 25, 2016.
Reuters

Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende is one of the most activist foreign ministers in the world. Heavily involved, his hand is on everything and everything reaches him. And like his predecessors, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dear to his heart: He visits the region at least four times a year, and is a regular guest in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and the Muqata’a in Ramallah. His relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is good and close. Two weeks ago, Brende arrived in Jerusalem once more and sat with Netanyahu. He shared his impressions from talks with colleagues around the world.

“You should know that there’s all kinds of talk about all kinds of things,” Brende told the premier, according to Western diplomats aware of the details of the meeting. “The French are pushing their initiative for an international conference and [U.S. President Barack] Obama is nearing the end of his term. Do you think he’ll leave the White House without saying anything about the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Maybe he will even advance a decision in the UN Security Council. These things are being discussed now in the world. You should seize the initiative and do something now, while it is still possible,” said Brende, according to the Western diplomats.

Netanyahu did not really respond. He mumbled something about not knowing what the Obama administration is preparing, if anything. He added that he had taken into account all the possibilities.

If we examine the past seven years he has spent in the Prime Minister’s Office, it is hard to believe Netanyahu will adopt Brende’s recommendations. But behind his laconic answer lies the real uncertainty that exists in Jerusalem over Obama’s desire, or lack thereof, to leave a legacy behind on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

A senior Israeli official said they had outlined a few possible scenarios in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. In the first scenario, Obama will do nothing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue before the end of his term, except for steps to prevent any deterioration. The likelihood of this scenario happening is not high, Jerusalem believes.

The second possibility is that Obama will give a speech in which he presents the U.S. vision for a solution to the core issues of the conflict: borders, security, the return of refugees, the division of Jerusalem. Obama’s speech would be based on the draft framework agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry almost succeeded in formulating in early 2014. Jerusalem ascribes a higher probability to this scenario materializing.

But what concerns many senior officials in Jerusalem is a third potential scenario, wherein Obama’s speech is turned into a UN Security Council resolution, led by the United States. In this scenario – which Jerusalem doesn’t give a high probability to, but still considers a real possibility – Obama will advance his move after the U.S. presidential election on November 8, 2016 and before the inauguration of the new president on January 20, 2017. During this period, Obama will be freed of any political constraints and can promote his proposal without interference.

The first person to identify this option was Ron Dermer, Israel’s current ambassador to the United States. Six months ago, long before the idea had passed the lips of any U.S. official, Dermer sketched out the scenario to a few cabinet ministers who were visiting Washington, and also to Netanyahu himself. If Obama decides to pursue such a move, Israel won’t have any way of stopping him – not even through Netanyahu’s Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.

The main reason for the uncertainty in Jerusalem is that the White House hasn’t really decided yet. Obama himself is yet to hold a single serious meeting on the matter. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, avoided making any reference to the subject during her visit to Israel two weeks ago. Nonetheless, when Obama does hold a discussion on the matter, she will have a great influence on his decision. And the things she saw and heard in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on her recent visit will play a major role in formulating her position.

The possibility of Obama launching a legacy-making move on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been discussed at the lower echelons of the White House and U.S. State Department – and there’s a real disagreement on the subject.

Some of Obama’s aides feel the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a dead-end and not worth wasting even another minute of the 11 months the president has remaining in his term. However, another group of his advisers – as well as senior State Department officials in Washington – believe that Obama’s legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be a UN Security Council resolution setting forth the principles for a solution to the conflict.

Such a resolution would replace UN Security Council resolution 242 (from 1967) and resolution 338 (1973), and would create a new foundation of authority for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, provide a basis for the two-state solution, and make clear to both Israel and the Palestinians what concessions they will need to make if one day they decide to resume the peace process.

If Obama does decide to advance such a move, the key to its success will be in the wording of the resolution brought to the UN Security Council for a vote. If both Israel and the Palestinians like the resolution, this means it is devoid of any content. If one side celebrates and the other side mourns, then it is not a balanced resolution. If both sides hate the resolution and reject it, that will mean it’s a good resolution that focuses on those very concessions that neither side is interested in making.

For the Israelis, these concession will include basing a future peace agreement on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and with Jerusalem as the capital of both countries. For the Palestinians, the concessions will be recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and the elimination of the possibility of the mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

The concern in Jerusalem over such a U.S. step has also triggered great suspicion over the statement released a week ago by the foreign ministers of the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union – in which they said they had decided to compile a report on the deadlocked peace process, and that this report will include recommendations for future action.

A senior Israeli official who deals with the matter said that this seemingly bureaucratic report and the timing of its publication – according to the timetable of the U.S. administration – could very well be revealed as preparatory groundwork for international action in the UN Security Council.

Alongside considerations about Obama’s legacy, Israel’s preoccupation with the White House is also focused on efforts to finalize the new 10-year agreement on U.S. military aid to Israel. Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, accompanied Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on a visit this week to a U.S. Navy destroyer moored in Haifa; Shapiro expressed optimism over the chances of reaching an agreement in the next few months. Nonetheless, the basic disagreements between the two sides – both on the size of the military aid package and the accompanying conditions – have yet to be resolved.

In the coming weeks, a series of meetings will be held between the two governments at the highest levels in an effort to secure a breakthrough. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Israel on March 7. A few days later, Ya’alon will fly to Washington for talks on the military aid package, and Netanyahu himself will travel to America before March 20 for the annual conference in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Washington the same day Obama flies out for his historic visit to Cuba. It is almost certain Netanyahu will move his trip up by a few days in order to meet with Obama and try to use it to advance the military aid deal.

The two sides both understand that their common interest is in finalizing the details of the defense aid memorandum of understanding before the end of Obama’s term. Unfortunately, past experience from the Obama-Netanyahu relationship over the past seven years shows that what can go wrong, quite often does go wrong.