Few surprising headlines emerged from the meeting of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on September 21, 2016, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Reporters and commentators were almost disappointed that the two leaders had an amicable meeting where both sides spoke of the “unbreakable” bonds between their two countries and the generous American security assistance.
The differences over Israeli “settlements” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a topic of exaggerated American concerns from the first days of President Obama’s first term, were mentioned in their publicly restrained statements. Undoubtedly, the issue was raised in the Obama-Netanyahu private talks. One minor difference of opinion that emerged was over the time the two leaders spent in each other’s company, with Israeli sources saying 75 minutes and American officials reducing the period to 35. Was it a U.S. official’s manner of diminishing the Israeli leader’s importance?
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
The settlement contretemps is reminiscent of a meeting between then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and then-Minister of Defense Moshe Arens in Israel in the early 1990s. “We really laid the settlements issue on the line,” a resolute, maybe even proud, aide to Baker told me at the time. When I asked Arens about the talks, he related that the settlement issue was barely raised.
The phenomenon of diplomats of two countries talking past each other or employing selective hearing to listen to what they want to hear is an old story in diplomatic history. [It played a vital and positive role in the U.S.-Soviet negotiations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as described by Robert Kennedy in his “Thirteen Days” memoirs.]
Netanyahu and Abbas Speak
There’s little doubt that PA President Mahmoud Abbas took heart from President Obama’s declaration about a Palestinian homeland:
Our hope will be that in these conversations we get a sense of how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are, in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.”1
Netanyahu explains, in one form or another, that the Palestinian narrative and incitement today tragically prove that Palestinian aspirations are the demise of Israel – and not just Jewish life on the West Bank.
For his part, Abbas came close last year to renouncing the Oslo Accords, the only document holding together the Palestinian Authority, its jurisdiction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and security arrangements with Israel that repress Hamas terrorism.
Abbas in 2015: “We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue.”2
With the Palestinian Authority shaken by political, economic and security tremors, will the 81-year-old Abbas, in the 11th year of his four year term, push his threat again to cancel the Oslo agreement?
The turmoil in the West Bank led to the postponement (and probable cancellation) of West Bank municipal elections next month. Each city in the territories is riven by clan, economic, nationalistic, and religious factions. In the case of Nablus, gun battles have recently taken place. [See The Fraying Palestinian Political Entity in the West Bank.]
Lame Ducks and New Presidents
Despite the volatile instability of the Middle East in general, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, a new American initiative for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations may not be out of the question. Some U.S. officials and analysts still suggest that President Obama may “lay out the parameters” of how he views a settlement, much the same way President Bill Clinton outlined his guidelines after the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit at the end of Clinton’s term.
Both the “Clinton parameters” and the George Bush-Ariel Sharon letter of April 14, 2004,3 provided Israel with political and diplomatic assurances that did not materialize in the Obama administrations.4
Will a New Administration in 2017 Make a Difference?
Isaiah (Si) Kenen, the founder of AIPAC and my mentor, taught me an important axiom about American Middle East policy. “The first year of a new administration is usually hard for Israel,” he warned. Kenen explained that it took months for new policies and directives to be applied and conveyed through the halls of the State Department and to U.S. embassies. Until the president’s clear policies were enacted, “Arabist” bureaucrats and diplomats’ tendencies often prevailed. The promises of the political campaigns are forgotten or ignored, and the new Congress’ traditional pro-Israel positions haven’t gelled. Referring to the American political and election process almost 40 years ago, Kenen went so far as to argue, “The even years (when elections are held) belong to Israel; the odd years to the Arabs.”
The first-year syndrome certainly was apparent in the Obama Administration’s first year. George Mitchell was appointed Special Envoy for Middle East Peace on January 22, 2009. He pressed for stronger U.S. action on issues such as the division of Jerusalem. Mitchell resigned in 2011. And in June 2009, President Obama delivered his famous speech on U.S.-Muslim relations at Cairo University, a speech seen by many as problematic for Israel. The president also chose to avoid visiting Israel on his first swing through the Middle East.
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1 The White House, September 21, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/21/remarks-president-obama-and-prime-minister-netanyahu-israel-bilateral
2 “Palestine is a state occupied by Israel and no longer bound by 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian Authority president says,” Times of Israel, September 30, 2015. http://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-abbas-2015-address-to-the-un-general-assembly/
3 Letter of George Bush, 2014. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/04/20040414-3.html
4 Example: “The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
“As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion…”