- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
Here’s a modest suggestion for Donald Trump to consider in advance of his second debate with Hillary Clinton: Put her on the spot to join you in actively opposing any lame-duck effort by President Barack Obama to dictate the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Suspicions are high that during his final days in office, Obama will give a speech in which he lays out the “Obama Parameters,” detailing the terms for a two-state solution on all the core final status issues, including Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees, and settlements. Obama would then have these terms enshrined in a new United Nations Security Council Resolution, giving them the status of binding international law.
How likely is Obama to do it? No one can say for sure. But when asked, the administration refuses to rule it out. On the contrary, officials coyly acknowledge that the president is actively reviewing what steps he might take “to preserve the two-state solution” before he departs the White House.
Somewhat more certain is the timing of any last-ditch initiative. There’s almost zero chance of Obama acting until after his successor is chosen on November 8. The reason is clear: Obama knows that any attempt to impose a solution on Israel would ignite a political firestorm in the United States. He doesn’t want to do anything that might damage Clinton’s electoral prospects.
But after Election Day, all bets are off. Obama will be free to indulge his obsession with securing his own legacy. Within two days of his inauguration in 2009, Obama identified Israeli-Palestinian peace as one of his highest priorities. But his performance on the issue has been dismal, an extended disquisition on diplomatic failure and malfeasance. The sad fact is that after two Obama terms the prospects for a settlement are more remote today than at any time in the past quarter century. What quicker way to overcome that blot on his record than by authoring a Security Council resolution that sets in stone for all time the terms of any future deal? All hail the Obama Parameters!
An added bonus, of course, would be the chance for Obama to stick it to his long time bête noire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu, along with most Israelis, fiercely opposes any outside effort to strong arm their country on matters directly affecting its vital national interests.
The case against any eleventh-hour Obama initiative is compelling. It would overturn decades of U.S. policy insisting that a stable peace cannot be dictated by external powers, but will only emerge as a result of good-faith negotiations between the parties. It would flagrantly violate the principle that lame-duck presidents lack the democratic legitimacy to undertake major policy initiatives that would tie the hands of their just-elected successor. It would undercut Israel, our strongest Middle Eastern ally, and put it in the untenable position of having to oppose a binding U.N. resolution — a gift if there ever was one to the growing chorus that seeks to isolate, sanction, and boycott the Jewish State. There’s a reason, after all, why none of Obama’s predecessors have seen fit to hand the peace process file over to the United Nations — a body that once infamously declared that “Zionism is Racism,” and whose coterie of dictatorships and tyrannies still manages year-in-and-year-out to disgrace itself thoroughly by passing more resolutions condemning Israel, the Middle East’s only liberal democracy, than any other member state.
Oh, and one more minor thing: The odds that any international initiative would actually advance the immediate cause of peace are basically zero.
So how best to deter Obama from making a lame-duck Hail Mary move on the peace process? Opposition from Trump alone is not likely to do the trick. On the contrary, it might only incentivize Obama to go for broke. A far more powerful deterrent would be for Obama’s designated heir, Hillary Clinton, to call upon him publicly not to proceed. To her credit, Clinton has on several occasions during the campaign stated her general opposition “to any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the U.N. Security Council.” What she hasn’t done is state her specific objection to any initiative that Obama might launch after the elections to pre-determine final status issues. That leaves open the suspicion that, once elected, she might protest perfunctorily while secretly welcoming Obama’s willingness to take the political heat for dictating the terms of a settlement, clearing the way for her administration to pressure Israel on behalf of a binding U.N. resolution that it only inherited.
That’s where Trump could perform a real service in the remaining debates. He could try to force Clinton’s hand on the issue of Obama Parameters and a subsequent Security Council Resolution. He should look for an opening to eliminate her wiggle room by posing a series of questions: “Would you oppose any effort by President Obama after the elections to dictate the terms of a peace deal and have those terms enshrined in a binding U.N. resolution? Will you join me now in calling on the president not to attempt any such initiative that would tie the hands of his successor? If you’re elected, will you commit to doing everything in your power to stop the president from undertaking such an effort?”
Preventing Obama from doing any further damage in the Middle East, while standing up for Israel, America’s best regional ally, is both good policy and good politics. By getting Clinton to join him in explicitly rejecting any lame-duck shenanigans by Obama on the peace process, Trump can use the debates not only to burnish his own foreign policy gravitas, but to advance the concrete interests of the United States as well. Not a bad night’s work at all.
Photo credit: CHRISTY BOWE/Corbis via Getty Images)