By The Jewish Ledger Editorial Advisory Board
Eight years ago President Barack Obama hoped, as many an American president before him, to bring closure to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel was going to the polls a month after his inauguration, and his expectation was that he would have a pragmatic new Israeli prime minister, the Kadima Party’s Tsipi Livni, to work with.
But events dashed his hopes. The Israeli electorate, spooked by a Gaza war in December and January, turned to the right and elected Likud hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu would be Obama’s counterpart in Israel for his entire presidency. The relationship was fraught from the outset.
After his election Obama sought to reset U.S. policy in the Muslim world by traveling to Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but he declined to include the Jewish state in his itinerary. Throughout his first term, he highlighted settlement construction as the principal impediment to peace, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that the centerpiece of American policy. When this one-sided effort predictably failed to produce results, Obama blamed Israel. In his second term, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to bring Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into a negotiating posture, and also failed.
For his part, Netanyahu violated alliance protocols of conduct, first by openly siding with Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, and then by appearing before a joint session of Congress in 2015 in an effort to derail a major U.S. foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal.
Now lame ducks, Obama and Kerry have lashed back. Relying on a “framework document” prepared in the ruins of Kerry’s 2014 push for negotiations, the president instructed U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to abstain rather than veto a Security Council resolution that, among other things, opens the way for the International Criminal Court to bring Israel to the docket.
It turns out that the framework document had many points that were favorable to Israel. It endorsed Israel’s call for the Arab world to accept the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and dismissed the Arab world’s call for a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. But in exchange for these important concessions to the Israeli position, it insisted on a freeze on settlements.
Netanyahu had warned his settler-dominated cabinet of the “diplomatic tsunami” that a frustrated Obama might unleash during a lame duck term. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, the chances that the outgoing Obama administration would have roiled the diplomatic waters were slim. But to box Donald Trump into the global diplomatic consensus, and to register Obama’s frustration, the tsunami that Netanyahu predicted did come to be.
If its last word is correct, why did the Obama administration wait until the clock had run out to allow a Security Council resolution? There is a strong case, decades old, that settlement efforts are indeed an impediment to a two-state solution. Successive Israeli governments cannot build settlements among 2.5 million Palestinians for half a century without undermining, or in fact eliminating, the possibility.
Rhetorically, Netanyahu has voiced grudging acceptance of a two-state solution, but in his most recent cabinet coalition he has created a government dead set against the principle of “two states for two peoples.” The settler movement has powerful allies in the current government, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett openly calling for annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, and promoting legislation to legitimize the status of illegal (by Israeli law) settlement outposts on Palestinian-owned land.
Repeated failures have given way to open frustration. The U.S. abstention, coming at the end of a wasted eight years of fruitless peace efforts, was a sad coda to a failed policy of zeroing in on Israeli misdeeds while papering over Palestinian intransigence.
But Netanyahu’s over-the-top temper tantrum was unwarranted. The Israeli prime minister is now facing a criminal investigation for corruption while in office, and is attempting to distract his electorate by pointing to the bright, shiny object of the U.S. abstention.
His unbecoming accusation that the resolution was actually the Obama administration’s handiwork was a pathetic attempt to deflect criticism by a man who for eight years has actively avoided a diplomatic two-state resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The drama of this skirmish will soon recede from history. In a matter of weeks, a new American president will assume office and Netanyahu will get the kind of counterpart he wants – one as little enamored as he of the two-state solution that has been the centerpiece of international and regional diplomacy these past 35 years.
But if not a two-state solution, what comes next for the Israelis and Palestinians? A bi-national state, ending the prospect of a uniquely Jewish state? A Palestinian people permanently disenfranchised and subject to unending occupation, preserving the Jewish character of the state, but with the price tag of permanent censure from the world community? Another round of bloodshed?
The significance of the final dust-up between Obama and Netanyahu has been blown out of all proportion. What happens next, with President Trump, will be far more momentous.