To Complete His Legacy, Obama Needs a New Direction on Israel-Palestine

In navigating his ship of state, the U.S. president has made many historic achievements. The only international issue he has utterly failed on is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ari Shavit
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U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a speech, June 14, 2016.
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a speech, June 14, 2016.Credit: Cliff Owen, AP
Ari Shavit

Very slowly and quietly, U.S. President Barack Obama is moving toward another historic achievement: victory over the Islamic State. The attacks in Orlando and Paris shouldn’t mislead us, nor should the ones liable to take place this summer. The international campaign against ISIS has gradually become a victorious one.

In Iraq, the army, the Shi’ite militias and the Kurdish forces are beating the Islamic State. In Syria, Assad's troops, Hezbollah and the Russians are wearing the organization down. Even in Libya, the group has switched from playing offense to playing defense.

It’s too early to tell when the breaking point will come, or whether the victory will be decisive. But the general picture is clear: The domineering Islamic State, which threatens the Middle East, is about to become history.

Even before he leaves the White House, Obama will be able to go to the American people and say that a forceful, sophisticated, patient American policy has created a turnaround. Just as I killed Osama bin Laden and shrunk Al-Qaida, the president will say, I’ve also removed the strategic threat embodied by the Islamic State. Without bombast, without fanfare and almost without losses, I’ve fulfilled my obligation as the defender of our national security and the defender of freedom worldwide.

From Obama’s perspective, his achievement with regard to ISIS will join other historic achievements: saving the global economy, passing the Affordable Care Act, ending the war in Iraq, signing the nuclear agreement with Iran and promoting progressive values in a cautious, judicious fashion. Unlike the hotheaded Republicans who preceded him (and those who seek to replace him), the intelligent, level-headed Democrat didn’t embroil America in any wars and didn’t bring any financial disasters down upon it.

When he takes his early retirement and begins a life of leisure, he’ll be able to look back with pride and satisfaction. At a time of rage, violence and instability, he’ll say to himself, I succeeded in navigating my ship of state wisely and bringing it safely to shore.

Only on one international issue has Obama utterly failed: Israel-Palestine. He sought to freeze settlement construction, but during his time in office, the number of settlers grew dramatically. He sought to sign a final-status agreement, but today, such an agreement seems farther away than ever. He sought to leave behind an independent Palestine and a democratic Israel, but Palestine doesn’t exist and Israeli democracy is under attack. This ancient, stubborn conflict, which rouses strong feelings in Obama, has actually worsened over the last decade and become a source of despair.

Thus Obama’s need to take real diplomatic action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue immediately after the U.S. presidential election in November is a deep-seated one. He is committed morally, politically and personally. He cannot accept this failure and turn his back on an issue so dear to his heart.

But the question is where this commitment will take him. One possibility is support for a historic new UN Security Council resolution. A second possibility is a foundational speech that will define his legacy and outline what a final-status agreement should look like.

Yet both of these options are liable to prove destructive. They would describe the conflict in terms disconnected from reality and create a dangerous gap between the facts on the ground and the international diplomatic and legal situation.

Consequently, either one of them is likely to bring about the opposite of what Obama hopes to achieve. Instead of furthering reconciliation, they will accelerate the conflict. Instead of reviving the two-state track, they will bury it.

Therefore, we urgently need a third option. The White House would do well to devote the hot summer months to an in-depth strategic study that will lead it to the start of a different path.

Obama shouldn’t leave behind just another high-minded, barren declaration. He should jump-start a new diplomatic process, one that is realistic and creative, and which his successor will be able to continue, advance and fulfill.