Don’t blame Obama for impasse on Palestine

Obama decided there is no point in wasting his time and political resources on Palestine, and he is right. He can’t change Israeli society; no foreign intervention can do that

Obama’s stance regarding the recognition of the Palestinian state, and his strident pro-Israeli tone before the UN have been variously explained as symptoms of the power of the Jewish voters/donors/lobby, or of America’s declining stature and influence in the world (ignoring recent progress on Libya, Al Qaeda and Iraq). But there is a much simpler explanation.

Obama has reverted to the default (i.e. staunchly sympathetic towards Israel) US position, because he realized there is nothing he could do to improve the situation. Therefore, there is no point in wasting his time and political resources on this issue. And he’s right: the US president does not have the power to change the dynamic on Palestine, and he is not to blame for the impasse we face.

What could he have done? Critics say he could have recognized a Palestinian state, and voted according in the Security Council, or pressured Israel more, or offered his own peace plan. But if one runs through the scenarios, it is hard to see how any of these paths could have led to a significantly better result.

If the US administration were to recognize Palestine, this would certainly be a dramatic move, with substantial legal and symbolic consequences. But the US Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – would do everything in their power to derail this policy. And even if they don’t, it is very hard to see Netanyahu throw away both his ideology and his premiership to follow suit. If the occupation continues, what’s the difference? No wonder many Palestinians are quite skeptical about this path.

What about more pressure on Israel? This is the favorite hobbyhorse of the administration’s critics. Certainly, Obama could have dialed it up many notches. But nowhere near enough to make Netanyhau, or his coalition, change their stripes. Without support from Congress, there are few sanctions the President can apply, and it is not clear that even sanctions would have made the Israeli right budge, or caused its public support to collapse.

Surely, Obama could have presented a peace plan of his own? The idea is appealing as an abstract notion, but one soon gets stuck on the content. Remember that Olmert and Abbas exchanged competing proposals on borders, and a significant gap remained, even without getting to the issue of the holy places or Palestinian refugees. If Obama were to move towards the Palestinians, his plan would be rejected not just by the current government in Jerusalem, but by the opposition as well. If he were to move towards Israel, he would be denounced as a sell-out, and rightly so.

What these three scenarios have in common, besides ending badly, is the underlying dynamic and power relations. Even if Obama’s policy had been perfect (and it certainly wasn’t), that would not have been enough to make Israeli society accept the need to change its policy towards the Palestinians. America’s involvement will be critical when that happens, but relying on any external force to somehow compel this change is both counter-productive and dangerous. This is not the time to be disillusioned about Obama – it is time to be disillusioned about the whole notion of a foreign knight in shining armor riding to the rescue.