The Powerless Peacemaker

Don't count on Obama pressuring Bibi to make peace in the Middle East. He isn’t -- and he can’t.

Photo Illustration: FP
Photo Illustration: FP

President Barack Obama putting pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu? You’ve got to be kidding.

Over the past week, the Obama administration has sent two signals, both through the media, that the president intends to up his level of personal involvement with Bibi and perhaps increase the pressure on him too.

The first was a story by New York Times reporter Mark Landler, in which the White House noted that it was time for the president to "plunge back into the effort" of peacemaking. The second was the much-circulated interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Obama made clear that the United States might not be able to manage the fall-out for Israel if there is no two-state solution.

At a minimum, these two reveals were designed to drive home the point that there is no daylight between Secretary of State John Kerry and the president on the peace process. Kerry has been largely a solo public act these many months. Now, as he enters the endgame of his efforts to produce a framework to guide future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it would be good to know that the president has his back. (The White House has also scheduled a meeting later this month with Mahmoud Abbas.)

But does Obama really have Kerry’s back? Can he bring real pressure and leverage to bear on Netanyahu? This may be on the wish list of many Middle East observers — but it’s likely to remain just a fantasy.

This is not necessarily because Obama doesn’t want to act more strongly and publicly. Indeed, his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg likely represents the way he truly feels: frustrated with Netanyahu, angered about settlements, and convinced that Israel is terribly short sighted in its view of the Kerry effort and the Palestinian problem generally. But Obama cannot act on those impulses.

There’s this urban legend out there that second-term U.S. presidents, freed from re-election constraints, can and will be tough on Israelis who don’t cooperate with their legacy plans to be peacemakers. But, in fact, there  is no precedent for this. Even Bill Clinton, who certainly engaged in a big way in peacemaking in the last year of his second term, did so largely because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak pushed him, not the other way around.

The issue is less the absence of politics and more the chances of success versus failure: If Obama (or any president) feels there’s a chance to win big, he’ll engage and even consider the possibility of pressure. If not, he won’t. And right now, the odds of an enduring success — a comprehensive agreement signed by Israelis and Palestinians that can actually be implemented — are pretty long ones.

There are additional reasons that Obama is unlikely to make bolder moves. Perhaps most notable among them is the problem of substance. What pressure can Obama actually bring to bear, and what leverage can he really use? The answers are none and not much. The timing for any real pressure is misplaced. Kerry is currently only engaged in Phase One of the peace process — seeking a general framework to hit the April deadline without humiliating the United States and preserving the chance for negotiations to actually reach a phase where substantive gaps can be closed. Obama knows he needs to save his limited powder. Moreover, it’s not as if there are tons of options at Obama’s disposal. Would he sanction Israel? Do so at the United Nations? Threaten to support Palestinian statehood outside the peace process? Cut back on military aid? Wage a P.R. war? None of these are good choices — and they’re never going to happen.

On top of that, Obama is being restrained from pushing Netanyahu by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. As it tries to find ways to deal with Russia’s incursion into Crimea, the Obama administration must know that it is politically unsustainable and illogical to pressure an ally. Every country takes note of U.S. actions and reactions to crises, and while Russia is hardly a small power, it’s standing up to Washington in a big way. With very bad options on the table, the Ukraine crisis is likely  to make Obama look weak, not strong. And everyone from Iran to North Korea to Saudi Arabia is keeping score. It would thus be problematic for the United States to be tough on Israel and fail, as it would create the truly extraordinary situation of a U.S. president being bested by an ally and an adversary simultaneously.

Then there is Iran, the issue that both Obama and Bibi care more about than the peace process. That a U.S. president, confronted by so much skepticism and straight-out opposition in Congress and facing so many tough decisions when it comes to a comprehensive nuclear deal with Tehran, would jam the Israelis on two fronts at the same time strains credulity to the breaking point. If there were a choice between seeking Israeli cooperation and acquiescence on an agreement with Iran or on a deal with the Palestinians, the choice would be an easy one. A nuclear Iran would create a huge stain on the Obama legacy; failure to reach an agreement with the Palestinians would not. If the latter happened, the president would just join a long line of his predecessors in failing to make peace.

Unable to apply real pressure, the White House has tried coming from a side angle, or so it seems — suggesting publicly that if Israel doesn’t do X then Y will happen. Obama alluded to negative consequences, for instance, in his Goldberg interview, after Kerry did the same in statements last month. But this kind of indirect pressure isn’t useful: It aggravates the Israelis and alienates their supporters in America, while also raising false expectations that the president would be willing to use vinegar as well as honey in the peace process if need be. With the Democrats already facing a tough go in the November midterms, the president isn’t doing himself any favors politically with this sort of tactic — prescription masquerading as analysis.

Yet in the end, indirect pressure is unlikely to cause even an iota of the problems that the real thing would. Put another way, it’s a weak substitute for outright boldness, and everyone (including Obama) knows it.

I’ve heard that the president’s meeting with Bibi on Monday in Washington was far less edgy than the tone taken during the Goldberg interview, and that tenor of interaction is likely to remain. There are productive and unproductive fights with the Israelis. Unproductive ones, of course, get the United States nowhere. Productive ones — if done wisely, effectively, and at the right time — create a situation in which everyone wins. While there are many uncertainties and unknowns about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, one thing is stunningly clear right now: This White House — whatever its inclinations and predispositions — has no intention of having either type of fight, anytime soon.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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