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Obama's Speech Won't Fix Israel

It was great, but a two-state solution is no more likely

Upon arriving in Israel yesterday, Barack Obama proclaimed the “unbreakable bonds” between the United States and Israel without once mentioning the Palestinians or the peace process. But in his address Thursday to the Israeli people, Obama urged Israelis to take “risks for peace” and asked his audience to “look at the world through [the Palestinians’] eyes.”

Obama’s arguments for renewing the peace process dwelled primarily on what Israel could gain from successful negotiations with the Palestinians. He held out the promise—voiced during the 1990s by Israeli supporters of the Oslo negotiations—that if Israel were to conclude negotiations, it could be fully integrated into the Middle Eastern and global economic community. At the same time, he held out the threat that if the occupation continues, Israel could suffer economic isolation and unanticipated terrorist attacks. It was an argument more likely to appear to Tel Aviv’s high-tech community than to Israel’s West Bank settlers.

But the question is whether Obama’s eloquence will have any effect on the peace process. Here are three reasons why it may not. First, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow ruling coalition can’t survive without the support of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, which controls twelve seats in the Knesset. Bennett’s party is opposed to a two-state solution and exacted an agreement from Netanyahu that it would be part of a special super-committee that would oversee any negotiations with the Palestinians. Except for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, none of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, and few of the members of Netanyahu’s own Likud-Beiteinu party, favor meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, for instance, favors creating a two-state solution based on denying citizenship to Israel’s Arabs.

Second, the Palestinians do not appear ready for negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas has not proven to be the kind of strong political leader that could sell an agreement to his people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, and still has supporters in the West Bank, has said it will accede to an agreement along the lines of the 1967 borders, but it’s not clear that Abbas can get, and that Netanyahu will accept, an agreement along those lines. In the meantime, the Palestinian leadership remains deeply divided, which makes fruitful negotiations difficult.

Third—and here’s the rub with Obama’s visit—the Israelis have most often given ground on negotiations when they were prodded and even threatened by the United States. George H.W. Bush’s threats to withhold loan guarantees laid the basis for the Oslo agreements. And while Obama was harshly criticized by Israel’s supporters in the U.S. and by the Israeli government for initially pressing a settlement freeze and negotiations on Netanyahu, Obama actually got Netanyahu to publicly back a two-state solution for the first time and to agree to a settlement freeze. Netanyahu put crippling qualifications on both, but it was still progress, and it was only achieved under duress. 

The soft touch that Obama displayed during his visit to Israel will no doubt placate many of his critics in the United States and Israel, but it is not likely to get any results at the negotiating table. And it’s not clear that he expects to get results. In his first term, Obama had two negotiators, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, working on the peace talks. Both men are gone and have not been replaced. Secretary of State John Kerry clearly favors negotiations, but he is unlikely to put energy into achieving them. Obama’s real strategy in Israel may have had much more to do with Iran than with the Palestinians. My best guess is that his two speeches were intended to calm Israelis about American support for their security, while assuring the Palestinians and the Arab world that Obama had not forgotten them entirely.

Obama did not publicly alter the position on Iran that he took during the campaign. He favored “strong and principled diplomacy” but said that “America will do what it must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” He joked about Netanyahu’s penchant for drawing “red lines,” but did not say what America’s would be. Still, the damage to American flexibility may have already been done. As was evident during his second speech, Obama has already gotten himself into a situation where if diplomacy stalls completely, and he doesn’t attack, Israel and its supporters will be justified in accusing him of betraying his word.

Obama reiterated in his speech that if Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon, it cannot be “contained” the way the Soviet Union or China was during the Cold War. That’s a questionable point to begin with, but to buttress it, he added another questionable point.  Israel, he said, is “faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel’s destruction.” In other words, containment can’t work because Iran is already committed to gaining nuclear weapons and using them to destroy Israel. 

Much of this is based on statements about Israel that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made at an Islamic student conference in October 2005. Obama was echoing the view that Ahmadinejad threatened to annihilate Israel. But scholars and journalists familiar with Iran have been debating what he actually meant, and few agree with the position Obama voiced. Ahmadinejad probably was not talking about physically destroying Israel through a nuclear attack. When he quoted the late Ayatollah Khomeini saying that Israel should be “eliminated from the pages of history,” what he was referring to was a pro-Palestinian version of the one-state solution—a Palestine where Arabs occupy the position that the Jews now do. His foreign minister later said he was talking about eliminating the Israeli regime, not eliminating Israel. 

Ahmadinejad is a bad actor, but there is little reason to believe that he was threatening Israel with nuclear annihilation. And he is also not in charge. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is, and there is no evidence that he is planning a nuclear attack against Israel. There are very good reasons—in addition to any threat to Israel—to oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and use all the tools at our disposal, short of war, to do so. But in stating America’s position during Thursdays’ speech, Obama continued to give succor to those who insist that war is in the cards. Judged as rhetoric, Obama’s speech soared, but judged as an attempt to reignite the peace process and slow the rush to war with Iran, it may have fallen flat.