Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel and the West Bank has so far progressed smoothly with his rhetoric of peace and reconciliation gladly lapped up by sympathetic crowds. This does not hide the fact, however, that Obama is no closer to achieving the key foreign policy goal that he set himself on becoming President in 2008. Namely, the resolution of the “Palestine situation”; the adoption of a two-state solution that could build on the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995.
The Oslo Accords, whose adoption was partly brokered by the Bill Clinton administration, created the conditions for a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the rights for Palestinian self-determination. It also formalised the acceptance of a two-state solution as a desirable outcome for both the Israelis and the Palestinians and a recognition of opposing authorities.
Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed these sentiments during their meeting on Wednesday. Yet the reality is that no progress has been made since the Oslo Accords towards achieving a permanent resolution for the coexistence of a separate Israeli and Palestinian state. Obama has been hampered in his efforts by an obstinate Netanyahu, who has little, if any, sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The President’s insistence in Ramallah on Thursday that the Palestinians rein in their protests over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip shows how Obama’s intentions have changed.
Aside from Afghanistan, the chief foreign policy concerns for the Obama administration in the Middle East are the Iranian nuclear programme and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Israeli support is deemed as essential if the US is to negotiate a desirable outcome to these events. Obama has no desire for the Israelis to carry out a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, a scenario Netanyahu has frequently mooted. However, should Iran progress its nuclear programme in an aggressive fashion then the willingness of the Israelis to sabotage it would provide welcome relief to the Americans. Similarly, Israel has shared its concern with America over Syria. The involvement of radical Islamist groups in the conflict increases the potential for chemical and heavy weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel is again well poised to counter such an eventuality.
Consequently, Obama has had to virtually abandon any notions he may have had of putting pressure on Israel to renegotiate its future with Palestine. Naturally, the Palestinian people have become increasingly disillusioned with Obama who also has to contend with the pro-Israel lobby back in the States. The achievement of the Clinton administration in getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to confront the reality of their situation should not be underestimated. The handshake between Rabin and Arafat in Washington won’t be forgotten.
Obama is hamstrung. To put pressure on the Israelis to halt settlement building and make serious efforts to realise a two-state solution would mean potentially alienating a critical strategic and military ally in an increasingly unstable region. By buttering up Netanyahu and the Israelis, Obama heightens his chances of defending American interests in the Middle East but at the expense of attaining the Holy Grail of foreign policy; the achievement of separate Israeli and Palestinian sovereign states.
Why is it the Holy Grail? Because its achievement is virtually impossible. One commonality of both sides is their resolute refusal to compromise. In that sense, Clinton and his international partners had the easy task. They negotiated a joint recognition by the Israelis and Palestinians of a problem that the world was already aware of. To take it further is going to require a stroke of diplomatic genius, or a significant alteration in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. And that, America wants to avoid.