Twelve years ago, President Clinton hosted Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat at Camp David in an interventionist bid for a historic compromise. What he billed as a promising meeting, however, ended in a major breakdown. His elusive conquest for Middle East peace dominated his second term and ultimately backfired, but three and a half years into his presidency, it appears that Barack Obama has learned from Clinton’s mistakes.
Clinton failed to transcend the uncompromising political realities, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Middle East peace was the ultimate prize that the President hoped to take home before the end of his second term, but thirteen days of negotiations couldn’t make up for Barak and Arafat’s unwillingness to deal with final status issues. Clinton’s desire to reach an agreement blinded him to their irreconcilable differences, while forced mediation produced mistrust and paranoia. Even so, the President tried to bridge the gaps down to the very last weeks of his term.
There haven’t been formal Israeli-Palestinian talks since 2008, but Obama heralded his term with an ambitious speech in Cairo calling for two states, a halt to settlement construction, and an end to violence. He seized the idea that settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were “the crux of the problem,” which coincided with the election of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had a history of approving settlement construction at the expense of the Oslo Process. By this point, the Palestinian Authority had also lost much of its popularity in the Palestinian street as intra-Palestinian conflict caused a Gaza-West Bank split and President Mahmoud Abbas’ power weakened.
Despite the static situation on the ground, Obama emphatically pushed a settlement freeze for the next few months. The issue seemed to be a priority. At the end of September, though, he dropped the demand for a freeze, declaring it was “past time to talk about starting negotiations.” In November 2009, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a 10-month partial freeze as a bid to restart talks, but the government continued to build pre-approved housing units. In March 2010, Israel sparked a diplomatic crisis when it approved the construction of 1,600 units during Vice President Biden’s visit.
The settlement freeze expired and was never renewed, but Obama forged ahead. In a deal reminiscent of the formal defense treaty Clinton offered Netanyahu in 1998 in return for complying with the Interim Agreement, Obama offered a slew of incentives in November 2010 – including the delivery of 20 additional F-35s and a commitment to Israel’s definition of security needs – in exchange for a 60-day moratorium on settlement construction.
The problem with Obama’s proposal wasn’t that Netanyahu refused, but the logic behind it. As former State Department advisor Aaron David Miller said about the package, “They’re not offering him [Netanyahu] pain, they’re offering him gain.” Even so, Netanyahu still had to deal with his constituency, which wouldn’t approve another building freeze. Obama had repeated Clinton’s mistake: believing in the unequivocal power of what Clinton official Martin Indyk described in Innocent Abroad as “good intentions backed by America’s immense influence.”
Obama essentially stayed out of the way after that. Since November 2010, he has only gone through the motions — speaking at this year’s AIPAC conference, calling Netanyahu and Abbas after attempts to restart talks, and releasing the occasional statemen: In other words, all process and no substance. Many say that Obama turned his back on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and focused on “easier” issues instead.
I’d like to offer a different interpretation. Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass recently said in Jerusalem that the “American era of dominating the Middle East peace process is ending. More responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Israelis and Palestinians themselves.” I think Obama finally understands that it’s really up to them — not the State Department or the White House — to find a solution. This is not negligence, but rather an honest confrontation of reality.
I think Obama also gets that neither side is currently serious about peace. Rocket attacks from Gaza, settlement construction, and settlers vandalizing West Bank mosques dominate the media. In June, Abbas called the peace process “clinically dead,” and it’s unlikely that Netanyahu’s unity government with centrist Kadima will convince the Prime Minister to accept pre-1967 lines with some land swaps as the starting point for negotiations. As diplomat Dennis Ross writes in The Missing Peace, “One critical lesson from the Oslo period is that no negotiation is likely to succeed if there is one environment at the negotiating table and another one on the street.” After stumbling through the first half of his term, perhaps Obama realized that the U.S. has no place in a stalemated process.
Obama was right to extricate himself from the unpromising peace process. American interference has no place in a conflict whose sides refuse to negotiate in good faith. If the President has indeed learned from the missteps of his predecessor, the U.S. may finally sit comfortably on the sidelines.