Obama, Netanyahu and the Palestinian conflict: What’s next?

Something indeed changed in the Israel-U.S. relationship, the question is what actions will the U.S. take and how Netanyahu reacts — from the Security Council to Gaza.

I just got back from the annual J Street conference. The atmosphere was very different from the 2013 conference. Back then it was all about the Kerry mission. This year, talk of peace was replaced by a certain state of shock from Netanyahu’s victory at the polls. Most of the conference participants get their information about those elections from the American media, which was in turn fed by the Israeli media, which presented the unrealistic probability of a Labor victory as a probably scenario. Nobody made any effort at hiding their disappointment with the actual results.

But there was also something else in the air. It wasn’t just Netanyahu’s victory that made the difference; it was the way he did it — sealing shut the door to the idea of a two-state solution and using racist scare-tactics to drive Jewish voters to the polls. The two-state solution is J Street’s main policy objective, and the history of the civil rights movement is at the core of liberal Jewish American identity. The fact that Netanyahu directly confronted everything they stand for – and was rewarded for it by Israelis – shook people to their core. The kind of talk heard from J Street people this year was unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. President of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, declared on stage – twice! – that “Netanyahu doesn’t represent us,” and the head of J Street’s board, Morton Halperin, said in his in opening remarks that, “Netanyahu will not convince us that he isn’t a racist.” Both were met with cheers from the audience. There was also a general sense that the U.S. administration is readier than ever to confront Netanyahu (a sentiment that was strengthened following the address by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough)

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
White House Chief of Staff Denis Mcdonough speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israelis tend to view such developments in one of two ways: either to claim that the country is headed on a one-way path to becoming a pariah state, the way South Africa was; or to believe that nothing actually happened, and that it’s all just empty words, at best.

The truth, I believe, lies elsewhere. The shift in American views and policies on Israel cannot be narrowed to “better” or “worse,” but a change is taking place nevertheless. The Republican commitment to Israel, and to the Israeli Right, is deepening. The Democratic Party is moving the other way, especially with its base and on a grassroots level. And there are more important developments that have to do with new dynamics in the Middle East and the way America understands its interests in the region. The pieces are moving very fast and the story is much bigger than the soap opera of Bibi vs. Obama we are being sold by political talk shows.

But where are things heading in the coming months? Here are some of the assessments I heard in Washington (take into account that I only spoke with people from one side of the aisle):

1. The change in the way the White House views Bibi and Israel is indeed real. It can be seen in the marginal role Israel played in forming Washington’s new policy toward Iran (Bibi can mostly blame himself for that), but also in ways that received almost no attention, like the appointment of Rob Malley as the Middle East advisor on the National Security Council. Malley, who served on the U.S. peace team during the Clinton Administration, was the author of a controversial piece in the New York Review of Books that laid the blame for the failure of the Camp David summit on Clinton and Ehud Barak, and not just on Arafat, as the administration (and the Israelis) claimed. After advising Obama during the 2008 campaign, Malley became the target of a smear campaign by right-wing pro-Israeli organizations. Now he has been appointed to a major policy making position, and nobody uttered a word.

2. The administration is now at a moment when presidents and their staff start thinking about their legacies. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama risks being the first president since Ronald Reagan – and perhaps even since Ford — who saw things move backwards on his watch. George H.W. Bush got the parties to the Madrid peace conference. Clinton had Oslo. George Bush put the idea of Palestinian statehood on the record. Obama, who promised in his Cairo speech that the United States “will not turn its back on the Palestinians,” might not want to be remembered as the one who did exactly that.

3. The first policy option the administration has is to publish the parameters for a future Palestinian state. In other words, to let it be known how the U.S. envisions this state (probably pre-’67 borders with land swaps, the division of Jerusalem and no substantial refugee return). Such positions matter because they serve as the starting points for future negotiations. Since Israel is the stronger party, which holds all the cards, publishing parameters is traditionally considered as a move that serves the Palestinians. (That is why Bill Clinton withdrew his parameters after the sides rejected them in December 2000.)

Israel will try to oppose the parameters, but if it fails, the fallback option will be a battle over the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, against clear language on East Jerusalem, and attempting to marry the end goal to direct negotiations between the two parties. The latter is the most important part. By conditioning everything on negotiations, Israel pretty much guarantees that the parameters can’t be used for any practical measure, even if they are adopted in the UN Security Council. The parameters will sound like a big deal, but have little implications on the ground.

4. The Administration can also support or abstain in a UN Security Council resolution on the settlements. On the surface, this might seem like a much more restrained measure than the parameters, but it has broader implications because it will provide the Palestinians with a formal decision by the international community that has consequences in other institutions. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has fought any attempt to take the Palestinian case to international institutions – from UN agencies to the International Criminal Court. When it couldn’t prevent the proceedings, the U.S. defended Israeli viciously. This is the diplomatic shield that allows Israel to avoid many of the occupation’s consequences. Withdrawing it is a big deal, which could affect the behavior of all parties involved. For this exact reason, I think that the administration might go for the cheaper, more public option (the parameters).

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015.  (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

5. When the 2016 campaign starts, the administration’s options will narrow and Democratic support for confronting Bibi – which is very limited as is – might dissipate altogether. Things should happen now, or not at all. Another unknown factor is the way Europe will interpret those developments. Personally, I believe that there is a tendency to exaggerate the European appetite for confronting Israel, but things are also moving in Brussels.

6. Finally, I heard some interesting speculation about the way in which Netanyahu can take some of the pressure of him. It is clear that Bibi opposes any changes to the status quo in the West Bank. Dennis Ross wrote in Politico that Netanyahu should indefinitely freeze all settlement activity beyond the wall. This will not happen, since Bibi’s political base is in the settlements, and he didn’t win these elections by alienating the settlers, quite the opposite.

What Netanyahu could do, and probably only under serious pressure, is to partially or entirely lift the blockade on Gaza. I think such a move (which I support wholeheartedly) could only happen under intense pressure, and it would be accompanied by vocal opposition from the Right and perhaps even the political center in Israel. And yet, it will be less costly than confronting the settlers in the West Bank, and Bibi will have some of the security establishment behind him. Plus, Netanyahu has already shown his willingness to strike deals with Hamas in the past – way more than he was ever ready to engage with Abbas.

A version of this article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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