The President Goes to Jerusalem

The overall opinion of President Obama’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories seems to agree that the President unleashed a “corker” of a speech. We are led to understand that, by acknowledging Israeli’s fears and humanizing the Palestinians, the President has done an excellent job at recasting the situation and rising above the leadership of the respective parties. Essentially, Obama took his argument to the Israeli people, recognizing the “futility” of hoping for progress with Netanyahu.

However, this speech may be much less of a success than it appears. In fact, this speech signals a significant defeat for the President. In his first term, Obama tried to maintain that halting the construction of new settlements was of paramount importance to getting negotiations to move forward. While the current talk certainly disparages settlements, it no longer views them as an impediment to negotiations:

What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations.

Chalk one up for Bibi. As has been mentioned before in this blog, the new Israeli coalition is likely to be inward looking. Any attempts at peacemaking will put incredible strains on the coalition. However, now that the settlement issue has been removed from the table as a precondition for talks the government the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, may freely pursue his policy of enhanced settlement construction. While Obama may be correct that there need be no need for preconditions for negotiations to commence, this move will be deeply disappointing to Palestinians.

The thought that keeps pushing through is that, as great as this speech is, it would have been even more excellent had it taken place in January, before Israeli elections. The time to encourage a people to influence their people is before an election, not after. While public opinion is always relevant in a democracy, it is incredibly more so in the lead up to an election.

The other issue here, mentioned above, is Palestinian disappointment. To quote from a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper:

What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.

Whereas in Israel Obama was greeted by children cheering, his reception in the Territories was glum.

Unfortunately it looks as if Obama may have made an excellent speech that will have little to no effect on the ground. Of course, I would love to be proved wrong.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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