President Barack Obama, entering his second and last term as chief executive, may be thinking about cementing his legacy. But whispers that he may seek to do it by brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace have the whiff of wishful thinking by those who would like to see it happen — and paranoia by those who don’t.
That may be the bottom line to Obama’s first official visit to Israel, scheduled for late March. The announcement of that trip triggered widespread speculation of a possible new U.S. peace push — speculation the White House has tried hard to quash.
A dramatically altered Middle East climate may relieve much of the international pressure that past presidents felt to dip their feet in the turbulent waters of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At home, the subject of U.S. involvement has become so toxic that few politicians of either party see much point in actively supporting it — especially with Israeli and Palestinian leaders so entrenched in their reluctance to make confidence-building compromises.
Former President Bill Clinton could count on strong, though not universal, support from congressional Democrats as he pressed both sides for peace; Obama will not be so fortunate.
Obama may feel even less political pressure to make peacemaking a top priority because supporters of a more active U.S. role do not get much help from a Palestinian Authority with weak, vacillating leaders and no realistic plan for dealing with the split that has left Gaza in the hands of Hamas.
Under the Obama administration, a new realism has crept into U.S. foreign policy that seems to eschew grand but inevitably futile and costly gestures.
The results can be seen in the administration’s cautious approach to the bloody, explosive civil war in Syria, the chaos in Egypt and pressure to ratchet up military threats against Iran and close the door to diplomacy with Tehran.
That same caution is likely to diminish Obama’s eagerness to dive back into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire without clear signs both sides are ready to take big political risks to make negotiations happen.
Underneath it all, it’s possible to detect a kind of “a pox on both your houses” in a Washington foreign policy establishment weary of years of fruitless peacemaking, tired of the blame game played by both sides and increasingly refocused on dramatic changes in other parts of the Middle East and around the world.
Support for Israel remains strong across the Washington political spectrum — a matter of both genuine belief and political expedience — but interest in helping Israel reach a peace agreement with its neighbors has gone deep underground.
Ultimately, that could prove disastrous for a Jewish state afflicted with a strain of political paralysis that is rapidly undercutting any chance for the kind of two-state solution that may be its only hope for both its long-term security and an end to its growing international isolation.
In the next two months both newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama will make the Middle East their first official foreign jaunts, with stops in Jerusalem and the West Bank. (President George W. Bush waited until his second term to visit Israel, and both the senior President Bush and Ronald Reagan never set foot in the Jewish state while in office.)
The announcement of the visit rekindled hope on the left that Obama, conspicuously gun shy about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking after disastrously demanding an Israeli settlement freeze soon after his 2009 inauguration, will use the trip to begin a concerted push for renewed direct negotiations.
The Israeli press has gone further, predicting a new wave of pressure on Israel to make concessions on issues such as settlements and even a possible three-way summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Obama.
The White House was quick to dash the most extravagant hopes of the pro-peace forces; last week White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the visit “is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” although officials also insisted the issue will be on the agenda, along with Iran and Syria.
Still, there is hope in some quarters and fear in others that the twin visits will signal the start of quiet but persistent efforts to get both sides to make gestures intended to improve the atmosphere in ways that will make a return to the peace table likelier in the future.
There is little doubt Obama and Kerry will use the visits to restate their commitment to a two-state solution and their desire to see negotiations resume sooner rather than later. Obama may seek to speak directly to the Israeli people to make that argument and he may offer indirect nods to the political opposition to Netanyahu that may be stronger in the wake of last month’s election — although it remains unclear how much of that political surge has any connection to the issue of peace with the Palestinians.
He is also likely to make the case that his approach to the Iran nuclear crisis — toughening and broadening sanctions while leaving the door open to diplomacy — is better than bellicose military threats and loose talk of war, a viewpoint echoed by many Israeli defense and intelligence analysts but not popular with the Netanyahu government.
Less clear is whether Obama will use the trip to repair his troubled relationship with Netanyahu, or focus more on a political opposition that may — or may not — be more focused on renewing negotiations.
But expectations are low, and not just as a matter of limiting the political and diplomatic costs of failure.
On the international scene, there is little real pressure on Washington to take dramatic action on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
In the wake of the first Gulf War and during the Clinton administration, European and Arab allies pressed hard for Washington to make Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority; in Washington, progress in negotiations was seen as critical to a range of other U.S. international priorities.
In a dramatically changed world, “linkage” is more historical relic than current reality.
European leaders continue to express sympathy for the Palestinians and anger about Israeli policies, and have threatened to fill with their own initiatives what they see as the vacuum caused by the U.S. retreat from active involvement. But few analysts see that as much more than posturing by leaders dealing with their own crises in a changing world.
There is a clear understanding that this president is much more risk averse in foreign policy than his predecessors — and much less likely to launch new policy initiatives when the chances of success are slim to nonexistent.
Looking at the Middle East, European leaders are much more concerned about the civil war in Syria and its implications for the region, the unrest in Egypt and what it portends about the future of the Arab Spring movement, the ongoing confrontation with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program and the tumult in North Africa — all issues that have little or nothing to do with the entrenched Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
Friendly Arab leaders have the same concerns, with added anxiety about their own survival as both external and internal pressures mount on regimes like those in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In this new era of uncertainty and danger, fanciful notions that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the key to solving all the region’s problems and that Washington is the only force capable of doing it have all but evaporated.
Linkage may still show up in diplomatic rhetoric, but as a motivating force shaping U.S. diplomacy, it appears to be dead.
Domestic politics are also a major factor in this country’s retreat from active peacemaking.
With little indication the Israelis and Palestinians themselves are ready for serious negotiations, it has become easier for those on the right in the U.S. to make the case that any real U.S. mediation — which requires a modicum of even-handedness, a term that has become one of the worst taboos in American politics — is somehow an attack on Israel itself.
The Madrid peace process two decades ago was started by the aggressive actions of a Republican president who did not face strong resistance within his own party; during the Clinton years, the administration could count on a solid, if not unanimous, base of support from the Democratic caucus in Congress.
Obama will not be so lucky. Many congressional Democrats will run for cover if new administration initiatives and new pressure on Israel stir the wrath of pro-Israel groups.
Even more telling, administration officials understand they cannot afford the huge distraction from other critical priorities — foreign and domestic — that a major new U.S. peace push and the resulting political firestorm would entail.
Those realities will likely define the goals for the upcoming visits by Kerry and Obama: keep the pilot light on under the Middle East negotiating pot, signal personal interest at the highest levels of the U.S. government, speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people about the continuing U.S. belief that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to ensure a secure future for both people and perhaps sniff out the potential for political change on both sides of the line.
But for now, at least, the era of sweeping U.S. peace initiatives and overt pressure on both sides to come to the table is probably over. That will make the upcoming U.S. diplomatic forays a kind of holding pattern while waiting for political realities in Israel and the West Bank to change.