Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility – a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.
When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: “Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party. Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative – as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon – but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: “Use with Caution.”
If misused, like a kid inheriting a fortune, such blank checks can have devastating self-destructive consequences. Obama's basic message – Israel has America's unconditional support in perpetuity – could be interpreted as having told Israelis that even as you abandon recognizable democracy in favour of apartheid, the United States will still have your back. “Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world,” he noted. Having handed over the blank check, he added the advisory note to user: If used badly, all that support would still not be enough to save Israel from the inevitable fallout from its current path.
First, over time you will have less security, as the other side is catching up technologically. Second, you will not realize your full economic potential (Obama made a smart pivot from his visit highlighting Israel's technology hot-houses to telling Israelis they were nonetheless underachieving because absent peace and security they could not become a true regional hub and global magnet). Third, that while the United States will support Israel no matter what, the rest of the world will not, and you will become isolated. Finally, you will ultimately feel bad about yourselves because you will not be a democracy. You will not live up to your own traditions, your own standards, and your own humanity (a demographic and moral argument). In this respect, Obama's powerful message that peace is also about justice and his humanizing of the Palestinians, including his off-the-cuff anecdote about meeting young people in Ramallah, really tried to drive home this point.
Obama's speech may have abandoned objectivity and made for uneasy listening for any Palestinian or even neutral observer, but he nonetheless made a powerful case to his mainstream, Zionist audience. It is a case Israelis seldom hear, even from their own supposedly liberal politicians.Obama couched his peace argument in support of a two-state deal on three axes: that it is necessary, just, and possible. He was on familiar terrain when making his first point — having made most of the arguments in his AIPAC speech of May 22nd 2011, on the challenges of demography, security, and looming diplomatic isolation. The second and third arguments he made on the case for peace constituted Obama's new pitch to the Israeli public. He appealed to morality (it's just) and to hope (it's possible) — precisely the themes that have been missing from the internal Israeli debate for many years. Many politicians (albeit not Netanyahu or most of his ministers) make the necessity argument, but almost none including the centrist leader Yair Lapid and opposition Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch dare make the argument that peace is a just and possible path.
So far so good, Mr. President. Great speech, but what next? The visit has offered nothing new on the programmatic side, no plan for going forward. My hunch is that Obama knows that putting Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back in a room together will achieve nothing, and that he is in no great hurry or places no great faith in those talks. Obama will also be very aware that while Netanyahu repeated his two-state message in their press conference, he nonetheless did not incorporate that language or anything approximating it in the coalition guidelines and agreements for his new government. Less than half of Netanyahu's cabinet is on record supporting a two-state deal, and many coalition ministers, deputy ministers, and Knesset members openly advocate the annexation of the West Bank. Obama presumably also knows that making one speech and then hoping that the Israeli public will do the rest of the work is not serious.
If Obama does decide to prioritize a peace deal during his second term, and that is a big if, an admittedly optimistic take could look like this: Secretary of State John Kerry might shuttle between the parties to discuss the parameters and even convene direct or trilateral talks. He will also court support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama in his Ramallah press conference with Abbas seemed to rule out a focus on incremental steps for their own sake (he might be tempted by the idea of a Palestinian state with interim borders, but on that too Netanyahu's best offer will fall short of providing an opening). Progress will be elusive; Netanyahu will offer little.
Eventually, if Kerry makes a convincing case, the president might conclude that a moment of choice has arrived and put forward his own terms of reference for convening an international conference or something similar. He mentioned his previous parameters during the Jerusalem speech, which included borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Obama would then draw on the credit accrued during this visit to appeal directly to the Israeli public in the face of predictable recalcitrance from Netanyahu. The Israeli center might be impressed and might even generate a little pressure. Like I said, optimistic stuff.
And sadly, even this would be insufficient if several other pieces are not put in place. Key among those is that there will be consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism, if not from the United States then from Europe and others; that there is a politically empowered Palestinian side no longer weakened by its current divisions; and that a detailed and nuanced plan exists for engaging with Israel's myriad tribal political leaders, including those who were not in the room on this visit and in whom Obama has yet to take an interest, such as the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab parties. Big ifs indeed.
Still, nice speech, Mr. President.
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