Obama: Last Chance to Rectify Your Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking Failures

The election-inauguration window only happens once for every president. Reagan used it to recognize the PLO in 1988, and Clinton for his parameters for peace in 2000. Will Obama follow suit?

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas in New York, September 22, 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas in New York, September 22, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg
Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin

It is no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is seriously concerned that President Obama may make a "bold" step to jumpstart the non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the twilight of his administration, after the November 8 elections and the January 20 inauguration. 

This "no strings attached" window of opportunity has been used before: by the Reagan administration to recognize the PLO in 1988, and by the Clinton administration to issue the "Clinton Parameters" for peace in December 2000. Both moves were harshly rejected by the Israeli right.

Will Obama follow these precedents? He has given out conflicting signals. If the U.S. were to decide not to veto a UN Security Council resolution against continued settlement building, that may be positive in itself, but it isn’t enough to stop this dangerous process. Another UN resolution initiated by European or Arab states that could refer to an outline permanent solution but does not add new elements would be even more redundant, especially when we know that Netanyahu is not ready to pay the already known price of a permanent agreement. 

Even a presidential speech that demarcated a similar outline end of conflict settlement would not have the power to not change the situation for the better. It would also not help a potential Clinton administration while its future policy is still being formulated on the Middle East. 

The best options for a last-minute Obama intervention require a stepping up of the rhetoric and intentions. That would mean a UN resolution directly initiated by the U.S., or a policy speech that packed its punches rather than go over old ground.

Either Obama-led initiative, to make a real difference, must include these three critical points:  

1. It would call upon both Israel and the Palestinians to immediately begin the negotiation on provisional borders for a sovereign Palestinian state. This would fulfill both parties’ commitment to the 2003 Road Map to Peace (initially a Quartet initiative, later adopted by the UNSC). Negotiation should be capped at a few months. This should lead to a significant expansion of the currently small geographic area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It should lead to security arrangements between Israel and a Palestinian non-militarized state, which would keep its own domestic security forces to ensure law and order.

2. A general reference to a permanent solution. This would include an update of the Clinton Parameters, and of the informal Israeli-Palestinian "Geneva Initiative" of 2003. Obama should consider a permanent solution that offers new elements in a script that’s already been known for so long. 

Personally, I believe this should build a two-state vision that exists within the context of a confederation. Both sides must agree on the territorial extent and depth of their cooperation; the borders between them will, gradually, become permeable. This confederation strategy would have the distinct advantage of increasing the feasibility of brokering a settlement answering the issues over which both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are unwilling to compromise, not least the future of Israeli settlements, the Palestinian refugee problem and security arrangements in the region.

3. A timetable for signing the permanent agreement and for its implementation. Netanyahu doesn’t want an arbitrary date to be set, which would enforce a solution even if the situation on the ground is very dangerous. One reading of his position is that he would consider getting to an agreement only if the situation on the ground is satisfactory, in his judgment, if he would consider that at all. Mahmoud Abbas could never accept this stance: the Palestinian president would require a fixed date (two or three years from the beginning of the talks between the two governments). Obama should suggest a proposal that include a fixed date for the end of negotiations, but also an option for a delay which would only be triggered in an extreme situation, and only if agreed by a referee such as the U.S.-led Quartet.

The 2013-2014 Kerry-led negotiations were a sad failure, despite their noble intentions. The idea of going directly to a permanent solution within nine months was flawed: it didn’t take into account either the readiness of the players to do just that, or the situation on the ground (mainly that Hamas, who holds the Gaza Strip, has been - so far - against a peace agreement with Israel). 

The total collapse of these talks was conducive to the end of the relative stable security environment of those days. It was due to a clear mistake by Secretary Kerry, backed by President Obama. This mistake can now be rectified if a clear vision towards a gradually-implemented permanent solution is unambiguously detailed by the President. 

Obama made tangible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a high priority since his second day in power, when he hastened to appoint George Mitchell his special envoy for Middle East peace.  The president met too many obstacles on the way to make good on his promise. Now he is nearing his second-last day in power. But he still has time to make a difference.   

Dr. Yossi Beilin served as Israel's Minister of Justice and initiated the Oslo Accords, Geneva Accords and the Taglit Birthright project.

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