Obama unlikely to take initiative on Palestinians

As outgoing president who never again will face electorate, Obama has political room for manoeuvre to take dramatic action.


2016/12/18 Issue: 86 Page: 16


The Arab Weekly
Mark Habeeb



Peace activists have been urging US President Barack Obama to say or do something in his final days in office that would resurrect the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The logic is that, as an outgoing president who never again will face the electorate, Obama has the political room for manoeuvre to take a dramatic action that will either lock the United States into an internationally recognised position on the framework of a settlement or, at a minimum, light a spark under the Israelis and Palestinians.

One suggestion is that the United States support — or at least not veto — a UN Security Council resolution that officially labels Israeli settlements a violation of international law and calls on the parties to agree to a negotiation framework based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon adjustments.

Another suggestion, expressed in a New York Times opinion article by former US president Jimmy Carter, is that the United States do what 137 other countries have done: Formally recognise the state of Palestine.

Carter called for a Security Council resolution as well, writing: “The combined weight of United States recognition, United Nations membership and a Security Council resolution soundly grounded in international law would lay the foundation for future diplomacy.” He called his proposal “the best — now perhaps the only — means of countering the one state reality that Israel is imposing on itself and the Palestinian people”.

A wide range of organisations — from Churches for Middle East Peace to the liberal Jewish group J Street — have issued calls for Obama to act. A resolution sponsored by 64 members of Congress — all Democrats — calls on Obama to put forward a vision for a two-state solution before he leaves office. The measure encourages the US government to “firmly articulat[e] 49 years of consistent, bipartisan United States opposition to settlement expansion”.

The resolution is not likely to make it to the floor of the US House of Representatives. None of the above proposals are likely to come to fruition, primarily because Donald Trump won the presidential election.

If Hillary Clinton were president-elect, she would be working with Obama to determine what he could do before leaving office that would put her administration in a better position to advance peace. Clinton may have liked the idea of Obama being the bad cop — meaning, the one to put pressure on Israel — so she could come in as the good cop. In the meantime, the United States would take decisive steps that she would not reverse.

Trump, however, has surrounded himself with a policy team that, except for retired US Marines general James Mattis, his nominee to be secretary of Defense, is stridently pro-Israel and has expressed little concern for Palestinian rights. Trump, for example, insists that he will move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Any actions that Obama might take before January 20th, when Trump is inaugurated, could and probably would be quickly reversed by the new Trump administration.

It is possible that Obama will give a speech that outlines his framework and vision for a viable two-state solution. Or perhaps he will do this in one of the many exit interviews he is giving to journalists — similar to his now famous (or infamous, depending upon your perspective) interview this year with the Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama appears to like expressing his deeper views through interviews and conversations with the media.

Former president Bill Clinton, who was turning over the White House to a Republican after the 2000 election, gave a speech to the Israel Policy Forum — a progressive Jewish organisation — just weeks before leaving office. Clinton described a final agreement that closely resembled the Arab Peace Initiative that was ratified by the Arab League two years later. The so-called Clinton Parameters are still referenced today, although the administration of George W. Bush did not adopt it as policy.

If Obama chooses to make a speech or in some other way publicly express his vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace, members of his own Democratic Party would largely be supportive. A recent poll conducted for the Brookings Institution by Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, revealed that 46% of American respondents would support the Obama administration if it pursues a Security Council initiative in support of a two-state solution and 27% would oppose. When that vote is broken down by party, 70% of Democrats asked said they were in favour as were 22% of Republicans.

A similar split is evident on the issue of Israeli settlements: 60% of Democratic respondents agreed that the United States should take action, including possibly economic sanctions, against Israel if it does not halt settlement expansion. Only 31% of Republicans agreed.

Like so many issues in the United States, Israeli-Palestinian peace is becoming bifurcated along party lines. So, while Obama would expect that most Democrats would applaud any efforts he takes, he knows that the incoming Trump administration would, at best, ignore him.


Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.


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