Obama and Abbas

As with the earlier meeting between President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, I don’t think today’s visit between Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be a game-changing event. But it is an opportunity for Obama to do two important things: 1) signal to Israel that he is really, truly serious about a two-state ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
585489_090528_abbas2.jpg
585489_090528_abbas2.jpg

As with the earlier meeting between President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, I don't think today’s visit between Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be a game-changing event. But it is an opportunity for Obama to do two important things: 1) signal to Israel that he is really, truly serious about a two-state solution, and do what he can to bolster Mahmoud Abbas's fragile standing among the Palestinians.

With those goals in mind, here's what the two men should say to each other. 

As with the earlier meeting between President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, I don’t think today’s visit between Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be a game-changing event. But it is an opportunity for Obama to do two important things: 1) signal to Israel that he is really, truly serious about a two-state solution, and do what he can to bolster Mahmoud Abbas’s fragile standing among the Palestinians.

With those goals in mind, here’s what the two men should say to each other. 

Obama will should emphasize that he is strongly committed to a two-state solution and that he is willing to use U.S. power and leverage to pressure both sides. He should tell Abbas that he intends to push Israel hard to stop building settlements and to negotiate a two-state solution that will lead to a viable Palestinian state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza.  He should also tell Abbas that he thinks this new state should have its capital in East Jerusalem, along with mutually acceptable arrangements governing access to the various holy sites in the Old City and subsidiary arrangements on water rights, air space, and the like.

At the same time, Obama needs to underline what he expects from Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, he should make it clear to Abbas that the refugee issue will have to be resolved in a way that does not jeopardize Israel’s status as a Jewish majority state. In other words: if the Palestinians want a state of their own, they will have to give up any vision of a full “right of return.” Second, Obama should make it clear that his vision of a two-state solution will involve certain restrictions on Palestinian sovereignty, mostly having to do with armaments and external security arrangements. Third, he should tell Abbas that he expects the PA to cooperate with the multinational effort (under Lt. General Keith Dayton) to build a reliable and professional security forces. Fourth, he should tell Abbas that it is time to beginning transferring power to a new generation of Palestinian leaders, and make more visible efforts to prepare the Palestinian people for a peaceful relationship with Israel. In particular, he needs to explain to Abbas that Palestinian radicalism has badly undercut their image here in the United States, and that his efforts to help them will be facilitated if they go to great lengths to underscore their desire to live in peace and security with Israel.

For his part, Abbas should tell Obama that he hopes Obama follows through more effectively than his predecessors did. He should make it crystal-clear to Obama that he supports the broad outlines of the deal laid out above, and he should voice his support for a two-state solution in front of as many cameras and reporters as he can. And Abbas should remind Obama that genuine progress towards peace is the best — and maybe the only — way to reduce the popularity of Hamas and to deprive Iran of the main issue that it is now exploiting to enhance its regional influence. Abbas should also warn him against attempts to make progress on Israel-Palestine contingent on a resolution of the various issues with Iran, or on a prior peace deal with Syria.  He should express his gratitude for U.S. assistance in building up Palestinian security forces, but make it clear that this effort will collapse if progress towards statehood stalls.  And he should tell Obama that this is one issue where eloquent rhetoric is not enough.  In the end, it is Obama’s actions that will count.   

But what really matters is not what the two men say to each other; what matters is what each of them does. But remember that one of them is the extremely popular leader of the most powerful country in the world, and the other isn’t even a head of state, and is someone whose own legitimacy has been badly tarnished by prior U.S. policy and events like Gaza. Now that Abbas and Netanyahu have both been to see him, the ball is in Obama’s court.

Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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