The Obama-Bibi Two-State Two-Step

The soap opera of the special relationship has gotten even more dramatic. But when it comes to Palestinian statehood, the United States and Israel are just playing games.

President Obama's State Visit To Israel And The West Bank Day Three
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MARCH 22: (ISRAEL OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum on March 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. This is Obama's first visit as president to the region and his itinerary includes meetings with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The current brouhaha between the United States and Israel is without a doubt the worst in the modern history of the relationship. Carter and Begin fought; Reagan and Begin too; Bush 41 and Shamir wrestled; and Clinton and Netanyahu too when he was first prime minister. But amid the dysfunction, there was also production. A few things actually got done that benefited both Israel and the United States. Now you have dysfunction without production, a veritable six-year soap opera with both drama and trauma.

But the fight this time around between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is not over trivial matters. There are legitimate differences between Israel and the United States on pressing matters, where both countries have much at stake, that are getting in the way of the special relationship. Front and center during the past few weeks was Iran complicating the relationship — and a less legitimate effort by an Israeli prime minister to influence and perhaps kill the Iran nuclear negotiations by interceding into U.S. politics in an unprecedented manner.

But as important as this Obama-Netanyahu U.S.-Israeli struggle may be, it’s also being shaped by a good deal of game playing and dishonesty that are far less consequential than the fight over Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

Nowhere is the gamesmanship greater than in the way the United States and Israel are relating to one another in regard to the mother of all Middle Eastern headaches: the Palestinian statehood issue.

It is remarkable that it was Netanyahu’s threat to walk away from Palestinian statehood that prompted the White House’s counterthreat to reassess U.S. relations with Israel on the peace process. It was extraordinary and willfully provocative because each leader knows that the odds in favor of creating two states in the next 20 months are slim to none.

Indeed, when it comes to creating two states, the prime minister is fooling nobody, and at best, the Obama administration is only fooling itself. And here’s why.

This was no flip-flop.

Governing is about choosing. And it should be clear by now that Palestinian statehood just isn’t a priority choice for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The commitment Netanyahu made in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009 to a Palestinian state was always conditional: “If we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.” And those conditions — in addition to Netanyahu’s views on Jerusalem, refugees, and the future of settlements — would have made it extremely difficult to get a Palestinian buy-in. Endorsing a Palestinian state even as a thought experiment was a big leap for a Likud prime minister. And taking it to fruition, dividing Jerusalem, and dismantling West Bank settlements simply aren’t in Netanyahu’s DNA any more than they would have been in Menachem Begin’s. And before we turn this into a good-versus-evil morality play, I should add that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t ready to make decisions to produce a conflict-ending agreement either.

Reports that secret negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu envoys in 2010 had produced breakthroughs, particularly a commitment by Israel to withdraw to June 1967 borders with territorial swaps, may be true, untrue, or partially true. But, frankly, at this point they are just not all that relevant. What Netanyahu actually agreed to on this point in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s 14-month peace process mediation that collapsed in the spring of 2014 is just not clear.

What really matters in this business is not secret assurances to a private emissary or even a secretary of state in the secure and comfortable world of the non-conversation, but rather a willingness to defend those propositions publicly in the cruel, harsh light of Israeli politics. Nothing about the prime minister’s behavior — from settlement activity to the way he describes Abbas or the importance of the Palestinian issue — suggests real interest in preserving and expanding political space for Netanyahu to build support for those secret assurances, let alone move boldly toward a two-state option. That Netanyahu — during the heat of an election campaign — chose to once again raise doubts about his bona fides on this issue is hardly a shocker from a politician who has never really embraced the issue from the get-go.

The fact is that the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace on the Israeli side has been something of a game from the beginning of the Obama administration. Netanyahu isn’t a risk taker on this issue, even as a tactician. He isn’t Yitzhak Rabin, who was prepared to enter into an interim Oslo process. And even though Netanyahu authorized two interim agreements with Yasser Arafat in 1997 and 1998, he never believed in them. Nor is Netanyahu Ariel Sharon, who despite his aversion to negotiating with Arafat and the PLO, authorized a bold unilateral step to dismantle settlements in Gaza without reciprocity, a venture that would prove to carry great risks.

These leaders actually had strategies and were prepared to take risks to achieve concrete results. Netanyahu is the consummate tactician who in many instances walks away from his own tactics. When it comes to the Palestinians, it’s always politics first. And it’s always one step forward and two steps back. This was the dynamic following his agreement to the Hebron Protocol in 1997, when the prime minister moved a month later to start construction of a large neighborhood in East Jerusalem — Har Homa. And this was evident again in the 2009 Bar-Ilan speech — walk away and walk back.

White House games

And that brings us to the curious matter of the Obama administration’s severe reaction to Netanyahu’s flip-flop. With the way the White House reacted, you would have thought that Israelis and Palestinians were on the verge of a peace treaty and that Netanyahu had just pulled the plug. Following Netanyahu’s election victory and his comments that he wouldn’t allow a Palestinians state, the White House responded that it would now have to “re-evaluate” its position on the peace process, and the State Department went further, indicating that the United States would “absolutely” push ahead with two states.

This reaction actually might have been fairly measured had it stopped there. But it didn’t. Soon after the White House used the dreaded “R” word — “reassess.” Not since President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s 1975 threat to reassess the U.S.-Israel relationship in an effort to press Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to conclude the second Sinai disengagement agreement with Egypt has a U.S. administration used language like that.

Even more curious is the Obama administration’s apparent willingness to continue to engage in this peculiar dance. Netanyahu has tried to walk back the walk-back. But the administration isn’t buying it. After the president’s congratulatory phone call to the prime minister, the White House made clear it still wasn’t sure where Netanyahu stood on the two-state issue.

And in an interview with the Huffington Post on March 20, the president continued to hammer away:

“We take him at his word when he said that it [a Palestinian state] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

There is nobody in the administration whom I know, with the possible exception of Kerry — a man who seems to really believe in this enterprise — who thinks a two-state outcome is possible right now or by the time Obama leaves office.

This skepticism or cynicism about Netanyahu’s walk-back on Palestinian statehood is warranted. But the question is, what’s the purpose? Is it to press Netanyahu to publicly endorse statehood without conditions; is it to overthrow him by isolating his yet-to-be-formed government, just to pile on because the administration is frustrated and angry over his speech to Congress and his re-election; or is the administration really trying to effect a freeze-out of Israel for the next 20 months in order to bring about fundamental change in the U.S.-Israel relationship?

If it’s the latter, one wonders what the Obama administration has in mind. Really tough actions such as sanctioning Israel, cutting aid, supporting the Palestinian bid for war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court? I doubt it. Indeed, one thing that has consistently characterized this administration is the gap between its words and deeds. It talks tough. But it doesn’t act.

What’s more likely is a variety of actions designed to show that if Israel doesn’t support two states, then the administration will be less able and willing to defend it in international fora. This could take the form of abstaining on U.N. votes critical of Israel, acquiescing in European sanctions against Jerusalem, and if there are to be no negotiations, supporting some kind of U.N. Security Council resolution that lays out the parameters of what might constitute a solution to the Palestinian issue. How any of this will compel Israel to take decisions on borders and Jerusalem is anyone’s guess.

Could any of this pressure actually work to produce a set of serious negotiations leading to a two-state solution? That would require adult behavior and supervision on both sides and a real reset between Obama and Netanyahu. More likely, some variation of these games will continue. And the Iran issue, particularly if there’s an agreement, will ensure bad feeling and bad faith on both sides. Netanyahu will continue to hedge and claim that he supports a workable two-state solution when he knows he doesn’t. And Obama will continue to hammer and isolate Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue when he knows there’s not much of a chance to get Israelis and Palestinians any closer to a two-state deal on his watch. Sadly, the Bibi-Barack soap opera continues. And it looks right now that there’s no end in sight.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News



About the Author

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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