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Obama and the Middle East

Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs


By virtually every measure—name, race, origins, and upbringing—Barack Hussein Obama was a revolutionary presidential candidate. In Mideast policy at least, there is little reason to imagine that he will be a revolutionary president. The radical break with traditional US policy came with the Bush administration, during which the US invaded and then occupied Iraq, shunned Syria, and engaged in an effort, at once ambitious and irresponsible, to reshape the region. Bush’s presidency represented an upheaval because it was both guided and blinded by a rigid ideological outlook and because of its uncommon proclivity to choose military over diplomatic means. Obama’s first step will be to close that stormy parenthesis. It will be no small achievement.

His own agenda for the Middle East is at the center of greater speculation, and at the heart of that speculation is the question of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There are signs—the fact that they are taking their time, reviewing their policies, consulting broadly—that the President and his team are committed to pragmatism and patience, qualities they found wanting in Bush’s rash attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East but also in Bill Clinton’s impetuous efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement. Their focus, at the outset at least, likely will be on improving conditions on the ground, including the West Bank economy, curbing if not halting Israeli settlement construction, pursuing reform of Palestinian security forces, and improving relations between Israel and Arab countries.

But there also are hints of a grand ambition biding its time. Obama has not staked his presidency on resolving the conflict, but he has not shied away from the challenge either. Judging by what the new president and his colleagues have suggested, attending to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a matter of US national interest. The administration seems prepared to devote considerable diplomatic, economic, and, perhaps, political capital to that end. And the goal, once the ground has been settled, will be to achieve a comprehensive, two-state solution.

At first glance, there’s more reason to be confounded than convinced. If such is the President’s objective, it will be pursued under unusually inauspicious circumstances. In Israel, a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who never tired of reiterating his commitment to a Palestinian state has been replaced by one, Benjamin Netanyahu, who can barely bring himself to utter the words. His coalition partners—a mix of right-wing, xenophobic, and religious parties—make matters worse. Even the participation of Ehud Barak and his Labor party in the coalition is of scant comfort. Barak was prime minister when Israeli–Palestinian negotiations collapsed at the Camp David summit in 2000; the principal lesson he seems to have drawn is to distrust all things Palestinian. As defense minister under Olmert, he barely concealed his disdain for the talks the Palestinians conducted with his own government, dismissing them as an “academic seminar.” It is hard to imagine this new coalition going further than its predecessor, which, in Palestinian eyes, didn’t go far enough.

On the Palestinian side, intense Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have so far failed to stitch the national movement together. The price of their divisions, costly under any circumstances, has inflated several-fold as a result of the war in Gaza in December and January between Israel and Hamas. The conflict proved, if proof were still needed, that President Mahmoud Abbas cannot continue to talk peace with Israel when Israel is at war with Palestinians and that Palestinians cannot make peace with Israel when they are at war with themselves. Hamas possesses the power to spoil any progress and will use it. It can act as an implacable opponent against any potential Palestinian compromise. Bilateral negotiations that failed when Olmert was prime minister and Hamas was a mere Palestinian faction are unlikely to succeed with Netanyahu at the helm and Hamas having grown into a regional reality.

If, despite this desolate landscape, the Obama administration nonetheless is determined to push for a final agreement, it could be because the President has something else in mind. At some point, he might intend to bypass negotiations between the parties and, with support from a broad international coalition including Arab countries, Russia, and the European Union, present them with a detailed two-state agreement they will be hard-pressed to reject. The concept stems from the notion that, left to their own devices, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable of reaching an accord and that they will need all the pressure and persuasion the world can muster to take the last, fateful steps.

It is one option. But before jumping toward it, basic issues should be explored. Getting the leaders to endorse a peace deal will be no mean feat, but it is not the only and perhaps not the most substantial challenge. The other question is how in the current climate the Israeli and Palestinian people would welcome a two-state solution. Would they view it as authentic or illegitimate? Would they see it as ending their conflict or merely opening its next round? Would it be more effective at mobilizing supporters or at galvanizing opponents? What, in short, would a two-state solution actually solve?


The challenge of ending the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has, of late, almost entirely revolved around tinkering with the details of a two-state agreement. Efforts toward a settlement, whether official or unofficial, focused on adjusting percentages of territorial annexation and land exchange; dividing and defining forms of sovereignty over Jerusalem; describing the attributes of a Palestinian state; and, more often as afterthought than central concern, finding technical ways to resettle and compensate the refugees. Successive failures and the repeated inability to satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian needs have been vexing. So far at least, these difficulties have not called into question the assumption that an equilibrium of interests exists or that it can be fully found within a two-state agreement. It’s just been seen as a matter of trying harder.

That President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert were incapable of reaching a settlement in 2008 following the goals set at the Annapolis conference might not be conclusive. But it gives reason to doubt the premise that more of the same can yield something different. Abbas is widely hailed as among the Palestinians’ most pragmatic leaders. Olmert took a more circuitous route to the peace camp, but he exhibited the faith of the late convert, intense and profound. After months of talks, Abbas declined a far more concessive Israeli proposal—on the size of the territory for Palestinians, for example—than the one Yasser Arafat turned down eight years ago and for which the then Palestinian leader was excoriated as an implacable enemy of peace. There is little reason to believe that more tweaking of the accord would have made a difference.

A workable two-state agreement would address a large share of the two sides’ aspirations. It would preserve Israel’s Jewish character and majority, provide it with final and recognized borders, and maintain its ties to Jewish holy sites. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would live free of Israeli occupation, they would govern Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and refugees would have the opportunity to choose normal lives through resettlement and compensation. If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?

Aspirations reflect historical experience. For Israel’s Jewish population, this includes displacement, persecution, the life of the ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust; and the long, frustrated quest for a normal, recognized, and accepted homeland. There is a craving for a future that will not echo the past and for the kind of ordinary security—the unquestioned acceptance of a Jewish presence in the region—that even overwhelming military superiority cannot guarantee. There is, too, at least among a significant, active segment of the Israeli population, a deep-seated attachment to the land, all of it, that constitutes Eretz Israel.

For Palestinians, the most primal demands relate to addressing and redressing a historical experience of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing off of their leaders, and the relentless fracturing of their national polity.

These Israeli and Palestinian yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill. Over the years, the goal gradually has shifted from reaching peace to achieving a two-state agreement. Those aims might sound the same, but they are not: peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Partitioning the land can, and most probably will, be an important means of achieving a viable, lasting, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not the end.


The idea of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel has an unusually interesting, troubled, and—from the British plan of the 1930s to the United Nations partition plan of 1947—mainly foreign pedigree. What it is not and, save for a brief period in the recent past, has not been is an indigenous Palestinian demand. Partition meant accepting less than the whole of the area of the British Mandate of Palestine; it also came to mean barring the return of refugees who were expelled or fled in 1948. For most of its history, the Palestinian national movement would have nothing to do with it. Israelis were no more enthralled. It took them even longer to warm up to the concept of Palestinian statehood, which they saw as both artificial, insofar as no such entity had existed in the past, and dangerous, because most Arabs and Palestinians denied Israelis the reciprocal right to a Jewish homeland.

Palestinians came to accept the two-state solution by the late 1980s, though that acceptance was always somewhat grudging. Statehood acquired the trappings of a national cause but it never truly matched national aspirations. For most, it appealed more to the head than to the heart; it was an arguably useful way of achieving greater goals but never the objective in and of itself. Unlike Zionism, for whom statehood was the central objective, the Palestinian fight was primarily about other matters. The absence of a state was not the cause of all their misfortune. Its creation would not be the full solution either.

Palestinian embrace of the idea of statehood essentially was the handiwork of a single man. With time, cunning, and shrewd politics, and because few dared challenge his militant credentials, Yasser Arafat fundamentally altered his movement’s position. His efforts were not without ambiguity. He toyed with Palestinians and worried Israelis by presenting a Palestinian state both as a solution and as a way station toward one. He made compromise—the acceptance of an Israeli state within the 1967 borders—feel like conquest and he managed to pack into partition feelings of historical vindication, dignity, and honor. When it came to persuading the West and Israel that he genuinely believed in a two-state solution, his past record of militancy was a burden. But when it came to selling a two-state solution to his people, that record was his greatest asset.

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