Barack Obama entered the White House more deeply informed about and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than any incoming president before him. He had attended and spoken at numerous events organized by the Arab-American and Palestinian-American communities, in which he had numerous contacts, and he had repeatedly criticized American policy, calling for a more even-handed approach toward Israel. Yet if there has been a distinguishing feature of Obama’s record on Israel-Palestine, it is that, unlike his recent predecessors, he has not a single achievement to his name. In the view of some top advisers, Obama’s final months in power are a unique opportunity to correct the record, and, more important, score an achievement that his successors could scarcely undo.
When he came to office, Palestinians looked to Obama as a potentially historic figure capable of ending their occupation. In a 2003 toast to Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American historian of the University of Chicago and later Columbia University, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and the many talks that had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” He had met, dined with, and attended the lectures of such figures as Edward Said, the most famous and eloquent Palestinian critic of the Oslo accords, and he had offered words of encouragement to Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian activist, writer, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, and leading advocate of a one-state solution. Unlike other presidents, Obama was able to relate personally to the Palestinian experience. He could draw parallels with Britain’s colonization of Kenya, where his Muslim father was born, and the African-American struggle for civil rights that had culminated in his presidency.
In his first days on the job, Obama did not disappoint. Within hours of taking office he made his first phone call to a foreign leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama,” a pleased Abbas adviser said, “but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem.” On his second day, Obama appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Senator George Mitchell, author of a 2001 fact-finding report that called for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction. Four months later, ahead of a White House visit by Abbas, the administration publicly confronted Israel with a call for a complete freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Visitors to the White House said they had never heard Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or either Bush speaking about Israel and Palestine in this way. Days after Abbas’s visit, Obama traveled to the Middle East, skipping what for another president would have been a requisite stop in Israel, and delivered an address in Cairo in which he said that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable” and spoke of the struggle of black people for full and equal rights in America.
Obama’s words, however, were not matched by his deeds. After giving up on his short-lived demand for a settlement freeze in September 2009, Obama’s envoys pressured the Palestinians to accept two wildly inconsistent pre-conditions for negotiations: first, that during the talks Israel could continue building new settlements in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention; second, that while Israel violated international law the Palestinians had to refrain from peacefully employing it, including by exercising their lawful right to join multilateral institutions, which, unlike Israel’s settlement activity, the US said it would consider an act of “bad faith.”
Then, in 2013, following the failure of these efforts, Obama authorized his secretary of state, John Kerry, to initiate yet another round of doomed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which served as cover for settlement building by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a scale unmatched during the preceding decade. Obama even ordered his UN ambassador to veto a Security Council resolution—the only veto during his administration—that called for a halt in settlement activity in words nearly identical to those already used by the administration. Meanwhile the president had provided more money and weapons than any of his predecessors to the Israeli government. His aides spent much of their final year not on advancing Obama’s goal of an end to occupation but rather on negotiating a substantial increase in US aid for the military that imposes it—reportedly about $40 billion over ten years—the most generous pledge of military assistance to any country in US history.
Many in the administration hope that this is merely a prelude to Obama’s final act, which is exactly what concerns the Israeli government. It dragged out the military aid talks, demanded a still larger subsidy, and displayed reluctance to accept the unprecedented package of aid. It did so not only because some of its members thought that Obama’s successor might provide an even more lucrative offer or permit Israel to continue using US taxpayer money to compete against US firms (a provision Obama is seeking to phase out), but also because it sensed a trap. By pointing to Israel’s receipt of the largest package of military assistance ever granted by the US, Obama could be more free to take steps not to Israel’s liking, including a last-gasp effort to secure a different sort of Palestine legacy.
What legacy might Obama try to leave? There are now only a few options that seem politically feasible, which is to say they do not depend on the cooperation of the parties, the support of Congress, or the absence of vociferous opposition from pro-Israel groups. One is to follow in the footsteps of Sweden by offering a largely symbolic recognition of the State of Palestine, without specifying its borders or where its capital would be. (Even in the realm of symbolism, Sweden’s recognition hasn’t amounted to much: two years later, Sweden’s representative to the Palestinians does not call herself an ambassador and her office is not called an embassy.) But recognition is deemed by most American officials to be a bridge too far.
A second is to support a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. That, however, has been done several times already, decades earlier, to little effect, and doing it another time is unlikely to alter Israeli behavior or Palestinian living conditions. A third is for Obama to deliver a speech that outlines the terms on which he thinks the conflict should be settled or to seek multilateral endorsement of such terms, perhaps through the Middle East Quartet, the mediation group of the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia. But the announcement of an Obama proposal would probably not have a lasting effect, either on the parties or on US policy, and the prospects of yet another US or multilateral plan are unpromising.
This leaves only one option that isn’t seen as unrealistic, unpalatable, or insignificant: to set down the guidelines or “parameters” of a peace agreement—on the four core issues of borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem—in a US-supported UN Security Council resolution. Once passed, with US support, these Security Council-endorsed parameters would become international law, binding, in theory, on all future presidents and peace brokers.
Top US officials see a parameters resolution as Obama’s only chance at a lasting, positive legacy, one that history might even one day show to have been more important to peace than the achievements of his predecessors. Once Kerry’s efforts extinguished the administration’s last hopes of an agreement on their watch, a parameters resolution became their brass ring; since then, Israel-Palestine policy has largely been at a standstill in Washington and capitals throughout Europe, hanging on the question of whether Obama will decide to grab it.
Proponents of a parameters resolution argue that it would form the guidelines for any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; decrease the likelihood of more talks like Kerry’s that went nowhere in part because they had no established terms of reference; reduce the incentives for the parties to hold out for better terms in future talks, since the resolution would not be subject to renegotiation; give leaders on each side the political cover of multilateral insistence on the concessions required of them; and present the parties with an international consensus position that they could dislike but not reject indefinitely. Once Israelis and Palestinians succumb to the weight of months or years of pressure to negotiate on the basis of a Security Council resolution—as eventually happened with Resolution 242, the basis of Israel’s only peace treaties with its Arab neighbors—the parameters, if sufficiently detailed, would greatly improve the chance that talks would have a successful outcome, the argument goes, by having secured, in advance, the most painful compromises on each side.
This is precisely the legacy move that the Israeli government fears most. In his March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu assaulted the idea, warning against those who
seek to impose terms on Israel in the UN Security Council. And those terms would undoubtedly be stacked against us, they always are. So such an effort in the UN would only convince the Palestinians that they can stab their way to a state. …A Security Council resolution to pressure Israel would further harden Palestinian positions, and thereby it could actually kill the chances of peace for many, many years. And that is why I hope the United States will maintain its longstanding position to reject such a UN resolution.
In May, Netanyahu tried to start a new, Egyptian-led peace process, a still-ongoing effort that, according to several Israeli cabinet ministers, is aimed at blocking the US from introducing parameters, since Israel could portray such a step as an attempt to interfere with the talks and quash a historical chance at peace. But Netanyahu’s attempts, now including a possible meeting with Abbas in Moscow, have not dissuaded the Obama administration. If anything his opposition confirmed the potential significance of the move.
The idea that the US should lay out the terms of an Israeli settlement with its neighbors has a long history, dating at least as far back as the 1977 Foreign Affairs article, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself,” by George Ball, the former US Undersecretary of State and Ambassador to the UN. “The parties will never come anywhere near agreement by the traditional processes of diplomatic haggling,” Ball wrote, “unless the United States first defines the terms of that agreement, relates them to established international principles, and makes clear that America’s continued involvement in the area depends upon acceptance by both sides of the terms it prescribes.”
Subsequent experience gave credence to the idea. Each of the US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks that had not succeeded was conducted without agreed guidelines, while each negotiation Israel concluded with its Arab neighbors was premised on internationally-endorsed terms of reference. The land-for-peace formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war, was the foundation of Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the interim agreement on Palestinian self-governance brokered in Oslo, which itself served as the terms of reference for successful subsequent negotiations on Palestinian self-rule—the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, Oslo II, and the Hebron Protocol.
But Resolution 242 was designed to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab states it had fought against in 1967, not between Israel and a yet-to-be established Palestinian one. It made no specific mention of the Palestinians—referring to them only obliquely, in a call for “a just settlement of the refugee problem”—or their right to statehood and self-determination. This absence was a primary reason that the Palestinians had for so many years objected to accepting Resolution 242 without reservations. Once the PLO had done so, in 1988, its leaders felt that they had finally agreed to the parameters established by the international community, only to find that the US backed the Israeli view that the Palestinians’ acceptance of a state on less than one fourth of their homeland was not a historic concession but a maximalist demand to be whittled down in future talks.
In round after round of negotiations since then, the Palestinians have reiterated that the guidelines of the discussion must be the international resolutions that they had been pressured to accept: from UN General Assembly Resolution 194, issued during the final phase of the 1948 war, which resolved “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” to the Security Council resolutions that have condemned all settlement activity as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Resolutions 446, 452, 465, 478), demanded the dismantlement of all settlements, including in Jerusalem (465), urged an immediate halt to Israel’s altering of the demographic composition of East Jerusalem and other occupied territories (446), affirmed the necessity of an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war (242), and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state (1397).
But as a mediator the US never insisted on these or other specific guidelines, and each negotiation ended in failure and regret, with senior US officials belatedly seeking to draft parameters in order to salvage some lasting achievement from their wasted efforts. Following the debacle at the Camp David summit, President Clinton presented both sides with a non-negotiable proposal in December 2000—known as the “Clinton Parameters” and based heavily on Israeli suggestions presented at the summit—but said the offer would disappear as soon as he left office less than one month later. At the end of the 2007-2008 Annapolis negotiations, Condoleezza Rice recalled in her memoir, the White House attempted to invite both sides to “accept the parameters” of an agreement, but, as with Clinton, it was during a US president’s final months in office, and again based on the proposal of an outgoing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. And following Kerry’s flop in 2014, Obama administration officials deliberated over whether to present an American framework for resolving the conflict, this time perhaps in a binding resolution at the UN Security Council.
There is no shortage of reasons for Obama to refuse to back a parameters resolution. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians may lobby their allies against such an approach, dragging the US into exhausting negotiations and uncomfortable compromises. Reaching a consensus in the Security Council that is acceptable to the US will be difficult if not impossible, particularly given European and Russian reluctance to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab states will likely defer to the Palestinian position, whatever their own private views, and Russia may see an opportunity to extract US concessions for its support. Once passed, a resolution is unlikely to be accepted any time soon by either side or to produce negotiations over a comprehensive agreement, which would be the resolution’s ostensible purpose.
Rather than generating hope that an agreement is possible, a resolution may lead to a significant deterioration in relations as leaders on both sides face pressure to assure key constituencies that they have not consented to the international community’s diktat: Israel could build settlements in particularly sensitive areas, formally annex parts of the West Bank, or pass a law requiring a parliamentary supermajority to authorize any negotiations over Jerusalem; Palestinians could limit cooperation with Israel and pursue new claims against it in international institutions.
Indeed, in the short run, a parameters resolution may seem to offer few advantages. The two sides would get no changes on the ground and no immediate prospect of ending the conflict. For Palestinians, the price of gaining American backing for international law would be that the US will have rewritten it in Israel’s favor, and even then without exerting the pressure necessary to force Israel to accept it; such a resolution would thus weaken their position in international law—one of the only realms in which they once held some advantage. For Israel, a parameters resolution would mean a set of US-backed, internationally-endorsed terms of reference where previously it had none.
Supporters of the resolution will be unable to argue that it has had any near-term positive effect, while critics will point to the rejection of it by both sides, the solidification of a one-state reality in defiance of the resolution, and the irrelevance of both the two-state solution and its international proponents. The next US administration, meanwhile, could subvert it through side letters and private commitments made to Israel, much as George W. Bush undermined a US-supported Security Council resolution on settlements in an April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon.
Above all, there is internal politics in the US. This may be the largest obstacle to a parameters resolution, which for the Obama administration has always been a question as much of domestic politics as of foreign policy. In July, a committee drafting the Republican Party platform amended it to remove support for a two-state solution and to oppose “any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and call for the immediate termination of all US funding of any entity that attempts to do so.” Following Netanyahu’s March 2016 speech to AIPAC, 388 Democratic and Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Obama warning that US support for a UN Security Council resolution on parameters would “dangerously hinder” the prospect of renewed negotiations. More Democrats may oppose a parameters resolution as the election nears. The Obama administration might have been willing to confront AIPAC and large numbers of Democrats in Congress for a goal as important to the US as the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But to confront widespread domestic opposition for something as marginal to US national security interests as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another matter. Worse still, even a parameters resolution that passes could take years to prove worthwhile, thus appearing, in the near term, as yet another Obama failure.
Where US officials come down on a parameters resolution depends to a significant degree on whether they believe the two-state solution is dying or already dead. Those who think it is merely dying—most in the administration—see a parameters resolution as a way to give new hope to hopeless Palestinians, inject a dose of realism into both societies about the compromises that will be required, ratchet up pressure on Israel to reverse steps undermining a two-state solution, and provide grounds for the Palestinian leadership to claim that its hand was forced by international law.
Those who think the two-state solution is already dead, however, worry that a parameters resolution will simply give new life to the lie of a “temporary occupation” that will end in the next round of talks, meanwhile wasting the time of the US and the international community with plans, pleas, and bribes to gain the parties’ acceptance as Israel gobbles up more of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In fact, the debate in Western capitals about whether to put forward a parameters resolution is a distraction from the more substantive question of what the resolution should say. Among the parties themselves, opposition to a resolution is not really about the wisdom of such an intervention in the abstract but about what each side fears it will lose. Both sides are certain to be disappointed with the final text, and the same could be said of the various US officials who would seek a resolution more favorable to one party or another. The debate between those officials is, in their own minds, one between relatively pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian positions. But it is in fact closer to one between the stances of Republican and Democratic groups, all of them pro-Israel and Zionist, in Washington, D.C.
On one side of the debate is AIPAC, an organization that distances itself from the Israeli government only when it is not led by Likud, and on the other side are organizations like J Street, which has aligned itself with an Israeli center whose positions on borders and Jerusalem do not differ from Netanyahu’s and which, in seeking to overcome a boycott by the past several Israeli governments, has tried to build ties to Likud ministers and offered to help Netanyahu’s government combat BDS.
The inevitable outcome of this process is either no resolution (perhaps instead a non-binding and easily dismissed presidential speech, endorsed by a number of allies) or a resolution that is of far greater benefit to Israel than to the Palestinians. This would be a particular irony, since AIPAC and Israel are strongly opposed to a parameters resolution in principle, while the Palestinians have been asking for US parameters or internationally-imposed terms of reference for well over a decade.
Any resolution the US supports will contain clauses that are difficult for each side to accept. The most troublesome issues for Israel are that the borders will be based on the pre-1967 lines and that the Palestinian capital will be in Jerusalem. The most onerous clauses for the Palestinians relate to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the absence of a timeline for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, and a resolution of the refugee problem that would rule out anything but symbolic return to Israel.
Examining these painful concessions for each side, a striking disparity emerges: the two compromises for Israel are battles that the country already lost long ago, in numerous UN resolutions, presidential statements, official declarations of EU policy, and the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been endorsed by the Quartet and the Security Council. A new Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital is consistent with the views of virtually all UN member states and is neither a significant gain for the PLO nor a substantial loss for Israel over existing positions.
This is not true of the bitter pills for the Palestinians, which would represent entirely new concessions to Israel. Settlements that existing Security Council resolutions call to dismantle would gain legitimacy as parts of a potential land swap. European and UN Security Council calls for a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem would be transformed into a strongly implied denial of a Palestinian right of return. And, for the first time in a Security Council resolution, the international community would offer some sort of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which the Quartet had previously refused to do.
As with any parameters or framework peace agreement, Palestinians and Israelis would be trading fundamentally unlike assets, one tangible, the other intangible. Palestinians would give up intangible moral claims, acquiescing in the denial of their right to return and bestowing legitimacy on their dispossessors by recognizing the vast majority of the Palestinian homeland as a Jewish state. Israelis, by contrast, would be committing to a physical withdrawal from land under their full control. The crucial difference between these two types of assets is that, once the parties had accepted parameters, only the intangible ones would disappear. The land, by contrast, would remain in Israel’s possession until reaching a comprehensive peace agreement, an outcome that an agreed framework by no means guarantees.
For the US, the purpose of any parameters is to make negotiations more likely to succeed by securing the largest concessions from each side in advance. But even with agreed guidelines, the power disparity in the negotiating room will remain, which means that the worst possible interpretation of the parameters, the full exploitation of every loophole, is what will be presented to the weaker party as the alternative to continued occupation. The onus, then, is on the drafters of the parameters to make them as detailed as possible, immunizing them against the legal and semantic circumventions for which Netanyahu and his longtime envoy, Yitzhak Molho, are well known.
Yet the US is all but certain not to draft parameters of this sort. Instead a resolution supported by the US would most likely consist of just a few short paragraphs, which would seek to arrive at compromise positions:
- Between those who call for land swaps to be equal not just in size but quality and those who call merely for “mutually agreed” swaps, thereby enabling Israel to annex valued territory, including in Jerusalem, while offering smaller, inferior patches of desert land in return;
- Between those who put an upper bound on Israel’s West Bank annexation of no more than 3 percent and those who do not, allowing Israel to annex settlements like Ariel that lie halfway across the West Bank;
- Between those who stress that the settlements will remain illegal violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention until a peace agreement is reached, and those who describe the possibility of land swaps in a manner that permits Israel to claim that construction in settlement blocs has been sanctioned by the Security Council;
- Between those who call for two capitals in Jerusalem and those who call merely for a shared capital, a wording that would empower Israel to insist on a unified city with limited or no Palestinian sovereignty;
- Between those who specify that a Palestinian capital will be in East Jerusalem within its pre-1967 municipal borders and those who more vaguely propose that there be two capitals in Jerusalem—that is, in the expanded, Israeli-defined boundaries of the city, which extend to the edges of Ramallah and Bethlehem—thus letting Israel demand that the Palestinian capital be seated in a place like Kafr Aqab, which is the northern-most neighborhood of the present-day municipality but was never considered part of Jerusalem before June 1967, lies on the West Bank side of the separation wall, and is closer to Ramallah than to the city center;
- Between those who state that some limited land swaps may be negotiated in Jerusalem and those who call for all “Jewish neighborhoods” (i.e., settlements) in East Jerusalem to be annexed by Israel, thereby legalizing all Jerusalem settlements, depriving Palestinians of the right to negotiate the status of some of their most valued land, and giving license—and added incentive—to Israel to increase Jerusalem settlement construction in advance of a peace agreement;
- Between those who call for Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty over the Wailing Wall/Buraq Wall and those who call for a “special regime” in the Old City or say nothing about it, allowing Israel to insist on control or sovereignty over the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam;
- Between those who set down a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank once an agreement has been reached, as the Clinton Parameters did, and those who reject a timeline or state merely that Palestinians and Israelis should agree on one, enabling Israel to demand that its withdrawal be contingent on ill-defined Palestinian performance;
- Between those who propose resolving the Palestinian refugee issue through both symbolic and practical concessions by Israel (e.g., permitting return to all living refugee survivors of the 1948 war, of whom there are estimated to be as few as 30,000 today) and those who explicitly deny that any refugees will return to Israel or insist that they do so only on a “humanitarian” basis, at Israel’s sole discretion, indicating a rejection of any meaningful return;
- And, finally, between those who say that any “narrative” concessions—concerning the history of the conflict—should include Israeli acknowledgment of partial responsibility for the expulsion and flight of Palestinian refugees and full responsibility for denying them the ability to return—and those who say that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish State without any reciprocal concession by Israel.
It is a safe bet that on the majority of the above issues, a US-supported resolution would favor Israeli positions over Palestinian ones. There are some Palestinians who would nevertheless take US-endorsed, legally binding parameters, with all their flaws and detrimental effects, as an improvement on existing international law that the US mediator ignores. The choice for the PLO has never been between inadequate US parameters and the parameters existing in various UN resolutions. It has been, rather, between refusing to negotiate and negotiating with no parameters at all. The latter meant, in practice, talks held on Israel’s terms. That is why for some Palestinians the prospect of a parameters resolution seems very much like the Obama administration itself: disappointing, unjust, and ineffectual, and yet perhaps still the best they’re going to get.
As the administration considers a final act before packing up in January, a Security Council resolution, even one that the parties will face no near-term consequences for rejecting, offers Obama his only chance at having done something to advance a two-state agreement. If Obama decides against supporting a resolution, he will have left no mark and allowed the next president to shape policy without constraints. That is almost certainly bad news for advocates of a two-state agreement, whether Obama’s successor is Donald Trump, whose adviser on Israel has called for settlement expansion and said Trump would support annexation of parts of the West Bank, or Hillary Clinton, who takes advice on the conflict from pro-Israel donors like the self-described hawk Haim Saban and veteran mediators like Dennis Ross, her special adviser as Secretary of State, who recently told a Jewish audience in New York, “Plenty of others are advocates for the Palestinians. We don’t need to be advocates for Palestinians. We need to be advocates for Israel.”
Whoever wins the election, it is unlikely that a parameters resolution will be taken up before the next president’s last months in office, in four or eight years. Clinton surprised no one when she declared in a speech to AIPAC in March, “And let me be clear—I would vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the UN Security Council.” Unless Obama forces her hand with binding parameters, this will remain her position at least until her last election campaign is complete.
That makes Obama’s final months in office a rare opportunity, even taking into account the likely defects of his proposal. Some in the administration would prefer to let it pass, choosing instead an initiative that would be more symbolic and less costly with donors to the Democratic Party. One possibility is parameters that are non-binding: presented outside the Security Council in a policy speech or perhaps a document endorsed by the Quartet and some US-allied Arab states. But as Ross recently noted, “presidents giving speeches at the end of a term frankly don’t have that big of an impact on anybody.”
So if Obama is to salvage his legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he will have to support a parameters resolution at the Security Council. His gambit, in that case, would be to weaken the Palestinian position on paper in the hope of strengthening it in practice, by creating binding guidelines for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.