03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does Obama Understand the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Early in the Obama administration there seemed to be a number of indications that Obama would change traditional U.S. policies of unconditional support of Israel and would put real pressure on that country to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Since this promising beginning, however, Obama has been in full retreat from any political confrontation with Israel and its U. S. supporters. Among the signs of that retreat are the following:

  • Obama's refusal--in direct contradiction of his repeated campaign rhetoric about the need to engage in diplomacy with one's adversaries--to confront Israel and its U.S. supporters by engaging in negotiations with Hamas.
  • The jettisoning of a number of Obama's campaign advisers who were critical of Israeli policy and, in particular, the Chas Freeman affair, in which Obama abandoned Freeman, an outspoken critic of Israel, when his appointment to a high-level intelligence position drew cries of outrage from the usual quarters.
  • Obama's gratuitous reassurance to Netanyahu that U.S. diplomatic and military aid to Israel will not be used as leverage to get the Israeli government to agree to end the occupation and allow the creation of a Palestinian state. Obama has even, in effect, abandoned diplomatic pressures on Israel to freeze its settlements in the occupied territories, even as the Netanyahu government thumbs its nose at the administration and actually steps up its new construction in the West Bank and, especially, in what used to be known as Arab East Jerusalem. These new or expanded East Jerusalem Jewish "neighborhoods" or settlements are, by themselves, deal-killers that make any two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians impossible--as, no doubt, is intended. No Palestinian government, including the present exceptionally moderate one of Mahmoud Abbas, will accept an agreement that does not include East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
  • Obama's response to the Goldstone Commission report, which provided copious evidence to support its conclusion that Israel committed a number of "war crimes" during its attack on Gaza a year ago (for a detailed analysis of the report, see here). The administration rejected the report out of hand, without explanation or even an attempt to rebut its factual findings. Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, could not have been more pleased, saying that the American position "could have been drafted in Tel Aviv, it was so wonderful."

What accounts for the effective collapse of U.S. efforts to bring about a two-state Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The most obvious explanation is that Obama is giving priority to his ambitious domestic agenda and rightly fears that real pressure on Israel would backfire in Congress, where it is likely that some key members would, in effect, hold their support for Obama's domestic programs hostage to his Israeli policies.

There is, however, another possible explanation, and it may bode even more badly for the chances of an effective U.S. policy: domestic politics aside, Obama and his key advisers may actually still believe much of the discredited Israeli mythology that prevents a peace settlement. That possibility is suggested by a news story in the January 7th edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, tellingly entitled "US Fed Up With Israel, Palestinians." According to the report, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, told an Israeli diplomat that the United States is "sick of" both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and warned that if there continued to be no progress in the peace process, "the Obama administration will reduce its involvement in the conflict because...[it] has other matters to deal with."

The administration's main complaint is that both sides have rejected the 2008 two-state peace plan by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. More specifically, Emanuel said, Netanyahu "adopted the freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank only after months of U.S. pressure...and by the time he publicly acknowledged the two-state solution....[it was] too late to be effective." As for the Palestinians, Emanuel charged--in the usual dreary but demonstrably wrong cliché--that they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

There are several problems with Emanuel's--or Obama's--take on the current deadlock. First, it is bizarre to hold the Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression, occupation, colonization, repression, economic warfare, and unending violence as equally responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lest it be argued that Israel is merely defending itself against Palestinian terrorism, in the last few years Israel has been violently crushing even nonviolent Palestinian resistance--beating, tear-gassing, arresting, and occasionally even shooting Palestinian protest marchers (as well as their Israeli supporters) who are trying to stop ongoing Israeli encroachments on Palestinian land.

As for the Olmert "peace plan," there is general agreement among Israeli analysts that in his late 2008 discussions with Abbas, Olmert appeared to offer something along the lines of the "Clinton Plan" of 2000: a Palestinian state in some 94% of the West Bank, a territorial swap, with the Palestinians getting roughly an equal amount of land from Israel as Israel would annex in the West Bank, and some form of Islamic control over the Muslim religious sites in East Jerusalem.

On the face of it, this would seem to have been a generous offer, but closer inspection reveals a number of problems. First, Olmert's discussions with Abbas were begun only late in his term in office, when he had little domestic political support and was clearly going to be succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu. Second, there were no formal minutes of the meetings and Olmert put nothing into writing, which accounts for the fact that no outsiders can be quite sure of the details of what he was offering. In fact, Abbas told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that no agreement had been reached on the two most important issues, the status of Jerusalem and the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars to their previous homes and villages in Israel.

In any case, even as he was talking to Abbas, Olmert was presiding over the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And then, in the final kiss of death to any serious negotiations with Palestinians, in the last days of his government, Olmert launched the devastating Israeli attack on Gaza.

As for the Netanyahu government, Emanuel complains that it accepted a freeze on Jewish settlements only because of U.S. pressure; however, he seriously underestimates the problem, because it is now perfectly plain that Netanyahu (his ambiguous rhetoric notwithstanding) has not truly accepted a freeze at all. On the contrary, his administration is continuing to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, especially in East Jerusalem.

In fact, then, the problem is not that Netanyahu adopted a two-state settlement "too late to be effective," whatever that is supposed to mean, but that Netanyahu has neither the genuine intention nor--almost certainly--the capability of adopting a fair two-state settlement. In short, the crippling effect of U.S. domestic politics aside, if Emanuel's understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict influences or mirrors that of Obama, the chances for effective US leadership in bringing about a viable settlement are nil.