Reading the tea leaves from New York

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the events surrounding the UN General Assembly, and especially President Obama’s ultimately inconsequential meetings with Israeli Prime MInister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, followed by his statements on these issues during his speech to the General Assembly. From a short-term, tactical perspective, Netanyahu has clearly won the ...

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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.
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I'm not entirely sure what to make of the events surrounding the UN General Assembly, and especially President Obama's ultimately inconsequential meetings with Israeli Prime MInister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, followed by his statements on these issues during his speech to the General Assembly.

From a short-term, tactical perspective, Netanyahu has clearly won the first round. Obama had demanded a complete halt to settlement building and had told his audience in Cairo last June that "the settlements must stop." Netanyahu refused, hung tough through the summer and Obama eventually backed down. Indeed, the United States is now helping bury the Goldstone Report on Gaza and making it abundantly clear that Israeli intransigence won't affect the "special relationship."

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the events surrounding the UN General Assembly, and especially President Obama’s ultimately inconsequential meetings with Israeli Prime MInister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, followed by his statements on these issues during his speech to the General Assembly.

From a short-term, tactical perspective, Netanyahu has clearly won the first round. Obama had demanded a complete halt to settlement building and had told his audience in Cairo last June that “the settlements must stop.” Netanyahu refused, hung tough through the summer and Obama eventually backed down. Indeed, the United States is now helping bury the Goldstone Report on Gaza and making it abundantly clear that Israeli intransigence won’t affect the “special relationship.”

Yet Obama also reiterated his commitment to two states in forceful terms, and said it was time for the parties to commence permanent status negotiations (something Netanyahu has resisted in the past). This development has led shrewd observers like Daniel Levy, M.J. Rosenberg, and FP‘s Marc Lynch to offer a guardedly optimistic interpretation of the events in New York, suggesting that Netanyahu may have won a tactical victory but suffered a strategic setback. Phil Weiss offers a similar appraisal on the Gaza report, suggesting that Obama and his team decided to let the Gaza report fall by the wayside in order to win over the center of the American Jewish community and put themselves in a better position to broker a two-state solution down the road. In essence, the optimists see Obama as playing a longer game, refusing to get bogged down by what are ultimately tactical issues and focused on the ultimate objective.

By contrast, Israeli observers like Uri Avnery and Gideon Levy offered far more pessimistic appraisals. Their early hopes that Obama and Mitchell would use U.S. leverage to halt the settlements and force Israel to disgorge the territories have been disappointed — at least for now — and they are clearly worried that Obama will prove to be all talk and no action. They believe that a two-state solution will simply not occur absent strong U.S. pressure, and they are beginning to doubt that Obama is up to the task.

None of us knows what Obama and his team will do in the future, or how subsequent events may alter the calculations and strategies of the key players. I lean toward the pessimistic side, however, for several reasons. First, Obama has yet to go beyond lofty rhetoric in his approach to this problem, and he has yet to display any serious backbone when it comes to dealing with the Israel lobby. He tossed advisor Rob Malley over the side during the campaign, distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, remained studiously silent about Gaza during the fighting, and allowed hardliners to torpedo the appointment of Charles Freeman to the National Intelligence Council during his first month in office. It is entirely possible that he’ll get tough when the crunch comes; but there’s no sign of it so far.

Second, if Obama couldn’t even convince Netanyahu to agree to a temporary settlement freeze (and remember, virtually every country in the world regards all settlement building as illegal under international law), then how is he going to persuade him to agree to the terms that everyone knows are the building blocks of a deal? Specifically, how will he get Netanyahu to agree to: 1) borders that provide for a viable Palestinian state, 2) a Palestinian capital in a substantial portion of East Jerusalem, 3) a mutually acceptable arrangement over the holy sites in the Old City, 4) some sort of agreement on the refugee issue (aka “right of return”) and 5) the removal of a substantial number of the 300,000 Israelis who are now living outside the 1967 borders?  Maybe there’s a rabbit that Obama will pull out of his hat, but it’s hard to see where it will come from right now.

Third, as Matt Duss noted yesterday on his own blog, Obama is likely to face something of a credibility problem going forward.  The next time he tries to press Netanyahu, Bibi’s hardline advisors are bound to tell him “relax, stick to your guns, just drag things out and eventually the President will blink.” In other words, having lost Round 1, Obama and Mitchell will have to work twice as hard to convince Jerusalem that they mean business next time around.

I’d be delighted to be proven wrong about all this, of course, and I did find some of the President’s words encouraging (I usually do). I suggested in the Washington Post last week that he needs to use his bully pulpit more effectively, and start explaining to the American people why a two-state solution is in everyone’s interest, and the sooner the better. Some of his remarks pointed in that direction, but he’s going to have to do a lot more to win enough of the right people over.

JIM WATSON/AFP/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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