The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Obama’s Legacy

By Paul Scham | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Nov 14, 2014
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Obama’s Legacy
The Beitar Illit Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone through a number of different phases in its long history. It is possible—though only time will tell—that a new phase is beginning now, but not a particularly hopeful one.[1]

The phrase “peace process” has been used for decades, at least since President Anwar Sadat made his unexpected and game-changing trip to Jerusalem in 1977. However, it has really been a series of processes, largely unsuccessful, interspersed between bouts of fighting or stalemate. We are currently in a period of stalemate, following a round of appalling Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza that erupted after a particularly unsuccessful nine-month peace process. Stalemate has usually been the default option, and that tradition continues. Now, though, the most likely scenario is benign general neglect of the issue—perhaps even if a new intifada erupts, as is possible.

In 1993, the Oslo process began, concurrently with a remarkably propitious confluence of events that helped to propel it forward. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the success of the first Gulf War and its unprecedented coalition, the 1988 (arguable) recognition of Israel by the PLO, the PLO’s low point after the Gulf War, the return of the Israeli Labor Party to power after 15 years, the massive Russian aliyah to Israel, the gradual slowing of the first intifada, and the fairly flush state of the world economy all combined to provide an atmosphere unusually conducive to making peace. Despite these seeming advantages, the Oslo process collapsed in the violence of the second intifada, leading to a period of some movement (the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza) but little progress toward peace.

After what seemed like a lost decade during the George W. Bush administration, Obama entered office vowing that dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a particularly high priority. One of his first acts after his inauguration was appointing a high-profile envoy—former Senator George Mitchell, who had been instrumental in the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement—to get things moving. In the spring of 2009, however, his administration inexplicably bungled its first major diplomatic initiative when it demanded that the newly installed right wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stop the growth or expansion of settlements as a precondition to resuming negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu, whose government was (and is) heavily based on settlers and their supporters, of course refused. At that point it became painfully clear that there was no “plan B” and that the administration was not prepared to apply pressure to enforce its demand, which it eventually withdrew. However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, perennially accused of being too accommodating to Israel, who had not previously set a settlement freeze as a precondition, could not let himself be in a position in which American demands on Israel were more stringent than his own, and thereafter demanded a settlement freeze as a precondition. This contretemps poisoned the well of the Obama peace process and, despite two sets of negotiations that eventually took place, it is hard to see much that is positive that the Obama administration has accomplished.

Current Situation

What is more, the relevant signals are as negative now as they were positive in 1993. The period that has passed since the hopeful times of Oslo has soured Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. The Middle East is in a near-unprecedented state of turmoil and is confronting a newly-hatched danger; the Islamic State (ISIS) is frightening virtually all the regimes in the region, as well as many in Europe and elsewhere. Ukraine, Russia, and China are also creating serious new crises at an alarming rate. Israel’s international isolation has grown, as it is largely blamed for the succession of brief wars in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014. Its steady expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are designed to preclude a genuine, sovereign, and contiguous Palestinian state, has deepened international criticism of Israeli policy, and this in turn is feeding Israelis’ historic fears of isolation and claims of anti-Semitism.

However, it is unlikely that Israel’s increasingly unpopular status will be translated into effective external pressure on it to change its policies. Its government is the most right wing in Israel’s history, with the majority of its members deeply skeptical, at the least, or else outspokenly hostile to the two-state solution. “Two states” has been Israel’s official policy since 2009, but the actions of Netanyahu and his government, especially an increased emphasis on settlements, have been largely inconsistent with this goal. Netanyahu has not officially renounced his commitment to two states, although he has asserted that Israeli forces will never leave the West Bank. He is under intense pressure to avoid any compromise from those much further to his right, in and out of his government. It is generally believed that the Israeli population has swung further to the right in the wake of the failed negotiations, the murder of three teenagers by two rogue Palestinians, and the latest Gaza war.

It is not as though Obama has ignored the conflict after his first foray ended in fiasco. His speech in Cairo in June 2009 produced expectations of a more evenhanded policy, which have been dashed as Obama became increasingly unpopular in both the Arab world and in Israel. A few days thereafter, under intense pressure from Obama, Netanyahu grudgingly endorsed the two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, though what is meant by “two states” clearly varies widely, depending on who invokes it. Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked for years to restart negotiations. But Palestinians protested when Israel produced only a partial and temporary settlement freeze, and the negotiations went nowhere. When Obama chose John Kerry as his secretary of state for his second term, Kerry amazed observers with his dogged efforts to restart negotiations. To the surprise of many, he succeeded in doing so in the summer of 2013, but to the surprise of very few, they collapsed in April 2014. A Palestinian unity government and the kidnapping and death of four teenagers—three Israeli and one Palestinian—closely followed, which led to latest Gaza war. Since its inconclusive end, violence, especially in Jerusalem, has spiked, and commentators are busy producing analyses as to why the current situation will—or won’t—lead to a new intifada in weeks, months, or years. This is in the context of a growing Sunni-Shi‘i conflict elsewhere in the Middle East and near-hysteria about ISIS in much of the world.

Dynamics and Drivers

The United States, which has been the primary driving force for Arab-Israeli peace since at least the 1970s, is now so enmeshed in its own domestic and foreign problems that it is difficult to imagine it playing a forceful role for the remainder of Obama’s presi­dency. In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, both of which are now seen by most Americans as failures, and the inability of Obama to successfully influence, much less control, the numerous Middle Eastern crises that have erupted on his watch, U.S. public opinion simultaneously blames Obama for the turmoil and resists the idea of further entanglement, especially “boots on the ground.” Moreover, the perennially dysfunctional Congress has been deadlocked on almost all issues and it is highly unlikely, though conceivable, that the Republican success in the 2014 midterm elections will ameliorate this. Thus, we are looking at two more years of gridlock and executive-legislative stalemate, limiting Obama’s options in all spheres, including with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian minefield. Though the president is constitutionally responsible for most U.S. foreign policy, strong congressional opposition can make the president’s policies difficult to implement.

U.S. public opinion is generally supportive of Israel, as it has been since 1948. What is not always recognized, though, is that the nature and composition of the support has changed fundamentally. Until the 1980s and even the 1990s, Democrats were generally Israel’s most active supporters, and Jews were overwhelmingly liberal Democrats (which they still are, though perhaps not as overwhelmingly). Republicans, especially the right wing of the party, were less involved and concerned with Israel. This changed, largely because of the growth of two important, though rather disparate, new forces in the Republican Party: evangelical Christians and neoconservatives.

The former see Israel as an essential part of the coming apoca­lypse; the latter saw Israel as the ultimate ally, in synch with U.S. values and unmatched as a fighting force. Since the 1990s, strong ties have been forged with Israel by both of these groups. Though the neocons are less visible now, some of their positions are now mainstream among Republicans, especially with regard to Israel. Of course, most congressional Democrats are still loathe to criticize Israel and often denounce any administration criticism of Israeli actions, though they, unlike most Republicans, generally distance themselves from the Israeli far right. In the last congress and almost surely in the next one, bipartisan support for Israel’s policies and opposition to any diplomatic pressure on Israel by the executive now includes many members from states with negligible Jewish populations. Large campaign contributions from a very few billionaires, notably Sheldon Adelson, are likely to determine Republican policy on this issue. Any realistic peace attempt by Obama would be grist for the Republicans’ mill and might not even garner much Democratic congressional support.

The “Jewish community” is more split on Israel than ever before. Though the Israeli peace movement has had a representative in Washington since 1989, the rise of J Street since 2008, with its slogan of “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel,” has shown that a significant portion of American Jews are opposed to Israel’s hawkish stand and are worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. However, despite an active and visible lobbying wing, J Street has not come close to changing the largely steadfast, with occasional criticism, American policy of support for Israel’s right wing government. Tangible evidence of this includes the political protection for Israel in the UN and other international forums by the Obama administration and the continuation of $3 billion per year of military assistance.

Older, established Jewish organizations, often in tandem with wealthy donors, usually demand unconditional support for Israeli policies. The Jewish establishment organizations are usually reflexively supportive of Israel and include institutions like AIPAC, the Anti-Discrimination League, and the American Jewish Committee. They have significant influence and are buttressed by growing Christian support. This is particularly evident in both houses of Congress, where pro-Israel measures pass with overwhelming, some­times unanimous, support.

While it seems clear that Obama, whose relationship with Netanyahu has become unpreceden­tedly hostile, would otherwise prefer a different, more robust policy toward Israel, his sagging poll numbers, the looming threat of ISIS, and shaky relationships with Arab allies seem to have persuaded him that he cannot afford to alienate both Democrats and Republicans by putting pressure on Israel. The “Chickenshitgate”[2] eruption just before the 2014 elections vividly illustrated both the bad blood and the seeming determination to keep trying to uphold the public alliance.

An additional factor is that the geopolitical situation in the Middle East currently is of unprecedented complexity and in itself is a major obstruction to international efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States in particular seeks to find the “good guys” and support them, but currently every potential “good guy” is allied with a number of “bad guys.”

Thus, for all these reasons, the opportunities for and likelihood of a renewed “peace process” are rather small. Israel is more or less satisfied with the status quo, at least in comparison with any serious alternative, which enables it to pursue its current policies without serious U.S. or international intervention. The Palestinians desperately want a state more or less on the 1967 borders, but, despite considerable international verbal support, have little leverage on Israel or the United States. Israelis hate and fear Hamas, but if it maintains its uneasy unity with the Palestinian Authority, it is unlikely to threaten Israel and, if it does, the response will be strong.

Some amelioration of the Palestinian situation in Gaza has taken place since this summer’s war and is likely to continue. There is serious talk of the PLO taking over the Gaza border and, if “unification” succeeds, playing a role in the Gaza government. That would presumably incline Israel toward further loosening the blockade it has main­tained on Gaza, and perhaps even allowing travel between Gaza and the West Bank. However, without a sea change in Israeli domestic politics or serious pressure from Washington, which are both improbable, Israel will continue to build settlements and probably refuse to release any more prisoners, a very hot-button subject for both Israelis and Palestinians. Those issues, and the continuing occupation, could, on the other hand, spark a third intifada, born of frustration and hopelessness; some say it has already begun in Jerusalem.

Obama's Legacy, Opportunities, and Pitfalls

Unless something truly unexpected and unpredictable occurs (which can never be ruled out), there is little likelihood that Obama or even the indefatigable Secretary Kerry will spend too much time or political capital on Israel/Palestine. If that is the case, then the situation for Palestinians and the fulfillment of Israel’s founding goal of a Jewish, democratic state will continue to deteriorate. On the other hand, the “window” for peace will probably never entirely close. Making peace 20 years ago would have been simpler than now, and now would be simpler than 10 or 20 years hence, but a division of the land in some fashion can never be ruled out, whether called partition or a two-state solution or something else. Sadly, it probably cannot be realized without further violence and suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians and without aggressive and sustained international, and especially American, diplomacy. But whoever does broker any lasting peace, if things continue in their current trajectory, that peace broker will probably not be Barack Obama.

On the other hand, an alternative scenario can be envisioned. Relations between Netanyahu and Obama have currently reached such a low point that one could imagine Obama, especially if constrained even more by the newly Republican Senate, deciding that since foreign affairs are largely in his hands, he might use this opportunity to abstain on crucial Security Council votes and otherwise make plain that the United States will not protect Israel from the consequences of its own policies.[3] If done adroitly—and with luck and good timing—this might be the only way that an American president could energize Israeli-Palestinian peace, that is, only when he has nothing more to lose. This is unlikely, but frustration at the White House could lead to some version of this scenario and might go a long way toward changing the caricature of irresolute temporizer that is now being applied to the president. This would be an unforgettable legacy. But it would require breaking through the façade of cordiality that has been insisted on by both parties, no matter what is said off the record. Policy wise, it could include an unprecedented willingness to pressure Israel to stop settlements and agree to permanent borders with a sovereign Palestinian state. Whether successful or not, such a last ditch strategy would make the Obama presidency memorable in histories of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which it has not been to date.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East

[1] The author thanks Ambassador (ret.) Phil Wilcox for his valuable suggestions and comments on this piece.

[2] Chemi Shalev, The 'Chickenshit' Relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Haaretz, October 29, 2014,

[3] Barak Ravid, “The Crisis with Washington is Here to Stay,” Haaretz, October 30, 2014,