Last-minute initiatives for Mideast peace are becoming a bit of a tradition for American presidents. In December 1988, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George P. Shultz, opened direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, angering the Israeli government. As late as January 2001, his last month in office, President Bill Clinton was willing to fly to the region to make a peace deal that had eluded him the month before at Camp David.
Now some veterans of Mideast peace negotiations believe that at the end of this year, after the U.S. election, the Obama administration might give peace another chance — and if that fails, try to enshrine certain conditions, such as a two-state solution, in a speech by President Obama, a joint statement by the quartet of outside negotiators or a new United Nations Security Council resolution.
Aaron David Miller, who in January wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine called “The Last Temptation of Barack Obama and John Kerry,” predicted that “despite all sense and reason, the president and his secretary of State will have one more go at Middle East peace.”
“I think they can’t help themselves,” Miller said. “It’s certainly part of Kerry’s DNA, his negotiating DNA. There is a debate and discussion in the administration and the real question is about whether or not they can bring round Mr Obama. That’s where I think we are.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the White House was working on plans “for reviving long-stalled Middle East negotiations” or to pursue a U.N. Security Council resolution “aimed at offering a blueprint for future Israeli-Palestinian talks.”
The White House said later that there has been no change in policy and that there was little point in any action that is not agreed to by both parties.
“Our position has been clear. We believe a two state solution is absolutely vital for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and will only come through negotiations,” the White House said in a statement. “We do not believe in negotiations for the sake of negotiations if the parties aren’t ready to make tough decisions.”
Making such a move, especially to reset the terms of U.N. Resolution 242 passed after the Six-Day War in 1967, would become a political hot potato for Democrats, and few observers expect the administration to do anything before November. To take an initiative sooner “puts you on a collision course with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in your final year and would cause difficulties for the putative Democratic nominee,” Miller said. “It will feed the Republican grist mills and every attack ad will say, ‘See what they’ve done? First Iran and now they abandon Israel.’”
As long ago as 2014, when U.S.-led negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down, the State Department drafted a speech for Kerry to deliver that would have laid out the parameters that the two sides needed to agree upon: border issues, security, the status of Jerusalem, treatment of Palestinian refugees and the mutual recognition of two states for two peoples — meaning recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and not simply recognition of its right to exist.
But Obama rejected the idea, and the speech was never delivered, according to people familiar with the debate at that time.
Some experts think that Obama might reconsider given not only the stalemate in talks but the sense that conditions on the ground are deteriorating.
“Things are not standing still,” said Martin Indyk, a former negotiator for Kerry and executive vice president at the Brookings Institution. Indyk cited “a process of creeping annexation” by Israel of portions of what peace negotiators call the C areas, encompassing about 60 percent of the West Bank. That annexation is linked to the expansion of settlements. Indyk also cited the demolition of Palestinian housing.
“All of this is moving apace and raising the specter that it really will become irreversible,” he said. The recent wave of stabbing attacks is driving the Israeli public to the right and “making both sides more and more disillusioned with the other and less and less willing to believe in the two-state solution.”
Indyk said an Obama administration effort to set certain parameters now could help future American presidents seeking a peace deal, even if both Israeli and Palestinian leaders denounce the effort. He said such parameters would have assisted the Kerry efforts in 2013 to 2014.
Miller points to the Reagan decision to deal directly with the PLO as an example of a difficult decision that helped lead to later agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.
Reagan wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Dec. 22, 1988, that “nothing in this decision should be construed as weakening the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security, diminishing our fight against terrorism in all its forms, or indicating our acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.”
Reagan said, “I am under no illusions about the PLO.” But he added, “Nevertheless, I believe that our dialogue with the PLO potentially can encourage realism and pragmatism within the Palestinian leadership and thus contribute to a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the long-term security of Israel can be achieved.”