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Will Obama Pursue Israeli-Palestinian Peace?

- November 9, 2012

This is a guest post by University of Connecticut political scientist Jeremy Pressman.


Just hours after Barack Obama was re-elected, Tony Blair, the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, was already calling for a renewal of the Arab-Israeli peace process: “I think President Obama’s re-election gives us the chance to go back into it with a renewed sense of momentum and a plan to move it forward. I think, expect, hope that this is what will happen.” Daniel Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, left the door open on the Palestinian question: “It always finds its way back onto the agenda. You can’t expect this to go away or remain on the back-burner.” In the Post, David Ignatius listed “a deal to create a Palestinian state so that Israel has secure borders” as one of four foreign policy deals a bold President Obama should pursue. Bernard Avishai called for Obama to appoint Bill Clinton as his new special envoy. (h/t @lrozen)

Will President Obama try to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his second term? If the limited history at our disposal is any guide, he will at some point make the effort. Since 1967, three U.S. presidents have served two terms and all three of them made a concerted effort in their second term to address the Arab-Israeli conflict.

From the beginning, the Reagan administration (1981-1989) paid attention episodically to the conflict. President Ronald Reagan’s second term included two major efforts, working through King Hussein’s Jordan in 1985-1986 and the Shultz Initiative in 1988.  Under President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), the United States tried for a final resolution on the Israeli-Syrian track with failures at the highest levels coming at Shepherdstown, West Virginia (January 2000) and then a meeting between Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Asad at Geneva (March 2000). Later that same year, in July, Clinton held a summit at Camp David with PA President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It failed, as did Clinton’s Israeli-Palestinian proposal in December 2000, the Clinton Plan.

Most recently, George W. Bush (2001-2009), who largely refrained from an all-out push for Israeli-Palestinian peace in his first six plus years, launched the Annapolis process in November 2007. That process ran through most of 2008 involving Secretary of State Condi Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It too came up short.

One could add a fourth president, Richard Nixon. Though he served only a partial second term, his administration did focus on Arab-Israeli diplomacy and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger maintained that focus as President Gerald Ford finished out the rest of Nixon’s second term.

Sooner or later, then, history suggests Obama officials will do the same and jump back into the peace process fray.

But thus far I have assumed that other things are about the same as under past two-term presidents. Yet one could also argue that Obama faces a very different environment than some or all of his predecessors.

  1. Obama experienced a major, public failure on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating front in his first term whereas Presidents GW Bush and Bill Clinton did not. The failed effort to re-start talks in 2009-10 was very public and much commented upon. George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy, came in with high hopes and departed with much criticism. Maybe this first-term failure left a scar that will serve as a disincentive to second-term diplomacy. Reagan stumbled twice during his first term (1982 Reagan Plan; 1983-1984 Israel-Lebanon pact) yet came back to the issue in his second term, though unlike Obama, he had not come into office having highlighted his desire to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.
  2. If we accept the conventional wisdom that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their legacy, it is not as if Israeli-Palestinian matters are Obama’s only choice. He has a range of foreign questions which he could address including, in the very same region, Iran, the Arab spring writ large, or the Syrian civil war. Plus, foreign policy debate agenda to the contrary, President Obama could address issues in the rest of the world. The President has plenty of other foreign policy issues on which to try to cement his legacy.
  3. Obama may not have Israeli leaders who are interested in a diplomatic process that is meant to lead to two states and the division of Jerusalem. Israeli elections on January 22 will set the stage. On the Palestinians side, the leadership remains split between President Abbas and Fatah, on the on hand, and Hamas, on the other hand. Such fragmented leadership may not be strong enough to negotiate and implement a deal. (See Quandt on the importance of Arab and Israeli political strength.)
  4. The debate has been raging over whether a two-state solution is dead (examples: here, here, here, here, here, here). In other words, whether due to the depth of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank, the failure of the Oslo process (1993-2001), continued violence, Palestinian fragmentation, or other factors, maybe the time for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement has passed. No matter how badly Obama might want it to happen, pessimistic perceptions and facts on the ground are stubborn obstacles.

It is probably also good to inject further uncertainty. The status quo rarely lasts long in the Middle East, e.g. the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982), secret Oslo talks (1993), first and second intifada (1987, 2000). These types of events make demands on U.S. policymakers at unexpected moments.

So if the general story is one where we should expect a second-term U.S. push for talks, several particular details move in the opposite direction. I think the historical pattern established by Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush will continue, in which case what Obama officials learned from their earlier failure will be very important.