Just when we thought the peace process couldn’t get any murkier, along comes a new player to further muddy the waters.
Technically speaking, U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t a new player. But he’s mostly stayed out of the Israeli-Palestinian sphere since his clumsy and misguided attempts to bring the two sides closer together during his first term in office.
Late last month, the New York Times reported Obama was about to take a more hands-on role to get the two sides to agree to a framework for further talks. Since there’s no way to meet Secretary of State John Kerry’s overly ambitious deadline for having a peace deal in place by the end of April, agreeing on this framework for continued negotiations – something akin to another road map – is the latest Plan B.
Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 3 when he was in Washington for the AIPAC Conference, and was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on March 17.
With two years left in his term, Obama is following in the footsteps of several of his presidential predecessors, who tried and failed to solve the conflict during their final months in the Oval Office.
Every American president in recent years has wanted to be the world leader who finally makes peace in the Mideast, and Obama is no different. But his odds of success are even lower than the first time he waded into the fray.
One potential upside is that Obama’s involvement would take some of the heat off Kerry. Although I’m on the record as being skeptical about the negotiating skills of Kerry, who used to be notorious for being influenced by whomever he last spoke to, he has certainly made the talks a priority and devoted substantial time and energy to meeting both sides and trying to bridge the gaps in their demands and perspectives.
He has fans and detractors on both sides. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused Kerry of “acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervour,” then later apologized. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls him “a true friend of Israel.”
Kerry has clashed with Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett and formed a mutual admiration society with Finance Minister Yair Lapid. His relationship with Netanyahu is tense, although certainly better than Obama’s.
On the Palestinian side, one of the PA’s two negotiators, Mohammed Shtayyeh, quit in November. He said a deal was impossible because of gaps between the two sides and American bias in favour of Israel.
After Kerry met with Abbas in Paris in February, senior PA official Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the idea of a framework deal as “a box of chocolates,” from which each side could pick and choose desirable elements and ignore those it found distasteful.
One must give Kerry credit for his thick skin, tenacity and ability to keep the talks from breaking down. But the fact that the U.S. is settling for a road map and the continuation of talks, instead of the comprehensive peace deal to which Kerry aspired, is a clear sign that the goalposts have shifted and it might be time to change quarterbacks.
So, what could Obama bring to the table at this stage?
Times reporter Mark Landler says the White House would not want Obama to re-engage in these discussions unless there was a good chance he could succeed.
He quotes a senior U.S. official, who said, “The president wouldn’t want to run any risk that it was the lack of his involvement that would make the difference between success and failure.”
Obama’s involvement could also be perceived as a sign the U.S. is truly committed to hammering out a peace accord.
But the fact is Obama has proven over and over again that he doesn’t get Israel or really understand her security concerns – shown most recently by his lenient stance on Iran.
Some observers believe the U.S. knows the talks are doomed, but is determined to keep the process going long enough to forestall a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood in September and to keep Netanyahu happy until after U.S. midterm elections in November.
If so, then Obama’s involvement could be mere window dressing, so that, when the talks ultimately fail, he can say, “I did everything I could, but those people just didn’t listen.”