President Obama has concluded that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is beyond reach during his presidency and will press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to preserve the mere possibility of a two-state solution, senior administration officials said Thursday.
The issue has taken on greater importance with the recent wave of stabbings carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, senior administration members said during a conference call with reporters about Netanyahu’s visit next week.
They said that the administration has become “realistic” that there might not even be negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials before Obama leaves office. In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said his government would no longer consider itself bound by the Oslo peace agreements in effect for two decades, charging that Israel had failed to live up to its obligations.
Rob Malley, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, said that for the first time in two decades, an American administration “faces the reality” that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not in the cards for the remainder” of a presidency. That, he said, has “led to a reassessment not only of what we can do but of what the parties can do.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said, “From the prime minister, we’ll want to hear what his views are for how the Israeli government can take steps” to build confidence and “to make clear that there is an aspiration” for a two-state solution, which Rhodes said was the only way forward.
What those steps might be wasn’t clear, though Rhodes and Malley said that the expansion of West Bank settlements remained an issue. Malley said the president would ask “how does the prime minister see things going forward” and hear his ideas of “what can be done in the absence of negotiations.”
Sources close to the U.S. and Israeli governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is particularly worried about the expansion of settlements and the possibility of what one source called “creeping annexation.”
Middle East experts said other steps might include measures to improve economic conditions and ease movement through checkpoints.
The tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be just one of the items on the agenda when Obama and Netanyahu meet. They will also discuss the next 10-year memorandum of understanding on military cooperation between the United States and Israel; the chaotic situation in Syria; how to counter Iranian threats to Israel, either from Syria or through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza; and the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal that Obama championed and Netanyahu ardently opposed.
“Nothing can be done to cover up that we had a policy disagreement,” Rhodes said, referring to the Iran deal. But, he said, the United States would continue to look for ways to bolster already close military and intelligence cooperation to ensure Israel’s security.