President Barack Obama is correct. There is, as he said on Tuesday, no realistic prospect of a Palestinian state being created through a diplomatic process for the foreseeable future.
“What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility for something that’s not there,” Obama said. “And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years.”
So that, it would seem, is that. In 2012, Obama confidently told the U.N. General Assembly, “The road is hard, but the destination is clear: a secure Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine.” Now, he has conceded that his own journey is over and the destination remains virtually invisible upon the horizon. The elixir that is a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has eluded Obama, just as it did his predecessors.
That is not an outcome we should celebrate. I also applaud the vision of a secure Jewish state of Israel living peaceably with a neighboring, prosperous Palestinian state—only I would add the entire Middle East to the equation. But here is where any empathy I have with the president ends.
It was entirely predictable that Obama would blame his predicament on one man: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The issue is a very clear substantive challenge: We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability,” Obama said. Then he added, drily, “And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach.”
The Netanyahu approach, as understood by Obama, was summarized in remarks he made the previous day. “Prime Minister Netanyahu in the election run-up stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister, and I took him at his word that that’s what he meant, and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally,” said the president. He concluded that the “prospect of a meaningful framework” that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state was not in sight.
In the future, Obama said, a credible negotiating framework would be one “that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility that down the road they have a secure state of their own standing side by side with a secure and fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.” In this sentence, there was a faint admonishing of Netanyahu, the implication being that the Israeli government’s negotiating positions and actions in the current framework left the Palestinians with no hope at all.
It’s here that we get to the heart of the dispute between Obama and Netanyahu, far beneath the surface noise of their mutual dislike. “The issue is not a matter of relations between leaders,” Obama said. And he is right. Ultimately, Israel maddens Obama because its people and its leaders—whatever their disagreements over how Netanyahu has handled his personal relationship with Obama—are rightly wary of his strategy of enabling Iran to become the dominant power in the Middle East, among the many consequences of which is that many Sunni Arabs turn to groups like the “Islamic State” terror entity in response.
What this reveals quite sharply is that Obama has never really empathized with the emotions that govern Israeli perceptions of the wider region—outrage that nearly 70 years after the Jewish state’s creation, the Arab and Muslim world remains consumed by anti-Semitism and eliminationist ambitions towards Israel; impatience when it comes to a peace process that promises so much and requires so many sacrifices, like the 2005 evacuation of Gaza, and yet seldom, if ever, makes good; fear of a nuclear Iran and contempt for the negotiating process that is abetting it.
From Obama’s point of view, though, it’s all about the current distribution of power and resources. Israel, Obama believes, controls the land, has a prosperous economy, and is robustly protected by a first-class military that enjoys a close, productive relationship with its American counterpart. It also has the support of America’s influential and prosperous Jewish community, which further cements the distinctive relationship between the two nations. And yet, despite all those advantages, Israel refuses to see that a complete moratorium on construction activities in Jewish communities in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem is in its best interests, thus fueling the anger of extremists who oppose the peace process, thus leading to repeated wars in Gaza, thus provoking international condemnation and isolation, and so on and so forth.
We cannot compel Obama to see things differently. But I do fear that his legacy, as it applies to Israelis, will be a wholly negative one: namely, to kill off any remnants of support for a two-state solution.
After all, it’s not just about the last seven years. The Oslo process, the second Palestinian intifada, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the assaults from Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, have all persuaded Israelis that hard, territorial compromises can actually bring more war, rather than less conflict. Yes, a good number of Israelis might dislike Netanyahu personally, and think that he bears a portion of the blame for the fractious relationship with the White House. But that does not imply their support for a peace process that defines Israeli concessions as the main yardstick of progress—suggesting, at the same time, that the compromises they’ve already made, like the 10-month freeze on settlement building that was implemented in late 2009, are worthless.
“Each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde. And the president bears him out. Obama’s zeal to create a Palestinian state, and his elevation of that quest to the most important goal of American policy in the region, has been profoundly disquieting for Israel. Not only do Israelis perceive Obama as placing undue pressure and censure upon Netanyahu, but they also perceive him as an appeaser of the Iranian mullahs and of the Assad regime in Syria. Should the phrase “two-state solution” become a permanent metaphor for a failed policy, Obama’s contribution on that score will have been decisive. But he will choose to blame Israel and its outspoken leader instead. That, after all, has been one of the few constants of this administration’s Middle East policy.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of The Tower, writes a weekly column for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).