As President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel approaches, one senses desperation from the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Obama’s scheduled stop in the West Bank has all the trappings of an empty gesture masking the real goal of creating coordination between the President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issues of Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, protests in the West Bank are spreading as Palestinian hunger strikers inspire defiance against Israel’s ongoing occupation.
In that context, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously trying to convince Obama to focus attention back on the question of Palestine and the occupation. Abbas’ advisor Muhammad Ashtiya told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday that the PA is trying to get Obama to jumpstart the peace process by putting forth a formula for talks that “…will guarantee the end of the occupation in the territories of ’67.” Such a formula would make it unrealistic to talk “…while the Israeli government continues to build settlements and establish facts on the ground that will thwart a future agreement.”
In other words, the Palestinians would drop their (entirely reasonable) “preconditions” in favor of the US setting them. It’s hard to see Obama doing this to say the least. But Ashtiya is right in saying this is the only way for talks to resume. That’s why they won’t.
The very next day, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the itinerary for his first trip overseas in his new job. The Middle East leg will include Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but not Israel. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland explained that Kerry did not want to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition-building process. While that may be true, an Obama Administration that would even consider the sort of steps the PA is currently suggesting would want to push Netanyahu toward a coalition that would accept a US framework. Any notion that Obama was considering a step like that at this time is contradicted by Kerry’s demurral.
Perhaps at some point later in his second term Obama will try to fix the mess we call the Israel-Palestine conflict. But right now the task involves too many pitfalls and too few promises. Obama knows Netanyahu will buck any serious effort at US mediation, just as he knows that former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking the reins of talks with the Palestinians is nothing more than window dressing. Netanyahu has some incentive to appear more reasonable than he has for the past four years, but very little to actually try to forge a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli public is nervous about the status quo, but that has more to do with their view that their government is isolating them from the rest of the world through brash statements and provocative actions than any sense of urgency to end the occupation.
Obama knows that Congress will revolt at the behest of AIPAC at any perceived pressure on Israel. With major battles over taxes and budget cuts looming, nuclear issues with Iran and now North Korea coming back to the fore and a Republican contingent determined to undermine his every move, Obama is not going to risk aggravating the Democrats in Congress that he absolutely must keep in line.
So Abbas is shouting into the wind here. The same sense of calm that keeps Israelis comfortable enough to refrain from pushing their government toward a resolution of the conflict also makes contemporary crises like Syria and the disposition of Hezbollah in Lebanon seem far more urgent. Yet this too, like Iran, is a bone of contention with congressional Republicans. Obama has no wish to increase his foreign policy difficulties.
Abbas’ options are becoming very limited. Israel has quietly and slowly been easing the siege on Gaza and while the situation there remains grim, there can be little doubt that even incremental improvements (which have largely consisted of some small imports of building materials and considerably larger imports of Israeli products) strengthen Hamas’ hand. As Palestinian reconciliation remains far off, Abbas is feeling domestic pressure from his political rivals. Add to that increasing protests, hunger strikers and the continuing, gradual growth of the global Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement (BDS), and Abbas is getting boxed in. Without some opening which only Obama can create, the credibility of Abbas’ program of negotiating with and reassuring Israel is dwindling to zero.
The Palestinians need the United States to bring forth a plan — Abbas and Ashtiya are not wrong about that. But Obama is not going to do that and risk alienating many in his own party unless it turns into something Israel wants. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t want it, and it’s not immediately apparent what Israeli leader would. But if the Palestinians — through non-violent but firm means such as the International Criminal Court, the BDS movement and continued appeals to Europe and Arab and Muslim countries that have relations with Israel — can increase pressure and make Israel’s populace less comfortable with the status quo, perhaps Israel will put forth a new leader with a peace mandate along the lines of that which they gave to Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
In that context, a president like Obama might have more options. But as it stands now, the Palestinian strategy should be based on the US being an obstacle, not a help.