Barack Obama took office in 2009 with two big personal priorities in foreign policy: the limitation of nuclear weapons and the cause of Palestinian statehood. This summer the president has been weighing a flurry of possible last-minute actions to cement his legacy on nukes, including a U.N. resolution that would ban testing. That raises an obvious question: Will Obama also launch an 11th-hour Mideast gambit?
The possibility has been debated in and outside the White House ever since Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s quixotic effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal collapsed in 2014. All along, the assumption has been that Obama might wait to act until after the presidential election, so as to avoid creating problems for Hillary Clinton. There’s plenty of precedent: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all bid for a Middle East legacy during their final months.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of an Obama initiative — which could take the form of a speech, or at its most ambitious, a U.N. resolution — is producing “high anxiety in the Netanyahu world,” as one former administration official puts it. That would be Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli leader who has haunted and taunted Obama since he took office — and absorbed in return more White House animus and abuse than any other U.S. ally. In the end, Obama’s final decisions on the Middle East may be driven by another drama: the Barack and Bibi endgame.
For now, the old rivals are cooperating on a deal that could burnish both their legacies. Israeli and U.S. sources say negotiations are essentially complete on a new 10-year bilateral defense pact that would boost annual U.S. military aid to Israel from $3 billion to close to $4 billion. Israel would get more money for missile defense, while agreeing to gradually redirect to American firms the quarter of U.S. funding it now diverts to domestic contractors.
For both leaders, the deal has a positive political twist. Obama would be able to point to it as proof that he was not, in the end, an anti-Israel president, in spite of his battles with Netanyahu over West Bank settlements and the Iranian nuclear deal. Netanyahu, who has good reason to worry about eroding support for Israel among U.S. liberals, would be able to describe the bounteous guaranteed funding as a Democratic initiative.
That’s not the only reason Netanyahu has to gloat: For now, he looks like the winner on points in his eight-year bout with this president. Yes, Obama squashed Netanyahu’s fervent campaign against the Iran accord. But Netanyahu has not only successfully resisted Obama’s pressure to allow a Palestinian state on terms he opposed, he has also continued Israeli settlement building, ignoring harsh criticism from the State Department and the White House. With years left in his own term in office, he can expect the next president, whether Clinton or Donald Trump, to drop Obama’s policy of treating him as a pariah.
Obama, however, still has his potential hole card: an Obama plan for Palestinian statehood. Though he lacks the means to make it happen, the outgoing president could publicly lay out U.S. terms for a settlement, much as Bill Clinton did before leaving office. If he sought ratification by the U.N. Security Council, Obama could set them in diplomatic stone. A conflict that for half a century has been defined by U.N. Resolution 242 would henceforth be governed by Obama’s.
The terms were largely hashed out by Kerry during his doomed diplomatic offensive. A Palestinian state would be based on Israel’s 1967 borders, with land swaps that would attach the largest West Bank settlements to Israel. Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. The return of Palestinian refugees to Israel would depend on a bilateral agreement. And Israel would be recognized as the homeland of the Jewish people.
That formula would be quickly rejected by both sides — just as it was when Obama tried to sell it to Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2014. Arab states might even block its passage by the Security Council, with help from Russia or France. No matter: Obama would be betting that pressure would slowly mount on Israel to accept the terms, perhaps accompanied by an acceleration of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Ten or 20 years from now, Obama could find himself heralded as the grandfather of Middle East peace.
Mavens of Middle East diplomacy point out that an Obama plan could do far more harm than good in the short term. To begin with, it could hamstring any attempt by the new president to rescue the failing U.S. position in the larger Middle East; if that’s Hillary Clinton, Obama may be pressed to consult her. We’ll learn after Nov. 8 whether such considerations matter more to the 44th president than creating a legacy on a pet issue — and trumping Netanyahu.
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