President Obama’s rhetorical assault on Benjamin Netanyahu last week was in part the product of pique. But it also set the stage for what could be another crockery-breaking bid by Obama for a foreign policy legacy, on a par with his opening to Cuba and would-be nuclear deal with Iran.
By declaring Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations dead and blaming Netanyahu, Obama laid the predicate for a decision to go forward with a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would set the terms for a final peace settlement. Envisioned as an updating of U.N. Resolution 242, which has been part of the framework for the Mideast “peace process” since the 1960s, the idea would be to mandate the solution to the questions Israelis and Palestinians have been unable to agree upon for decades, such as the future status of Jerusalem. Not incidentally, it would provide Obama with the Mideast legacy he has craved since his first day in office.
Whether or not it accelerated Palestinian statehood (and most likely it wouldn’t), Obama’s initiative would set off an earthquake in U.S. foreign relations and for Israel’s standing in the world. For nearly half a century, the United States has taken the position that the terms for a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians must come about as the result of negotiations and not as an imposition by outside parties. At the United Nations, it has been a given that Washington will veto resolutions that aim to compel Israel to accept terms.
Now Obama is contemplating going forward with a resolution that was drafted last year by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Mideast negotiations team at the State Department. The language was drawn up in response to efforts by the Palestinians and France to win support for Security Council resolutions following the collapse of Kerry’s attempt to get Israeli and Palestinian assent to a “framework agreement.” France announced on Friday that it would renew its initiative, giving Obama a fresh prompt.
Obama chose not to proceed in November after appeals by Netanyahu’s domestic opponents, who were hoping to defeat him in this month’s election. Now that the White House’s Israeli nemesis is on his way to forming another right-wing government, that constraint no longer applies. As in the case with restoring relations with Cuba, Obama can also disregard the domestic political considerations that restrained him before he began his “fourth quarter” in office.
Administration officials indicated last week that the president has not yet decided whether to support a French resolution or offer a U.S. alternative. If he does make the attempt, Obama is likely to find himself bedeviled by the same thorny issues that have prevented negotiations from succeeding all this time.
The first is which parameters for Palestinian statehood to include in a U.N. resolution. The administration’s language would probably stipulate that Palestine’s territory would be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with territorial swaps to allow Israel’s annexation of some Jewish settlements. Most likely it would declare that Jerusalem would be the capital of both nations.
Israeli officials, who are aware of the U.S. draft, say that while these terms, much sought by the Palestinians, would be very specific, some of Israel’s biggest priorities would be covered by much vaguer language. A description of security arrangements would glide over the question of exactly how the West Bank and Gaza would be prevented from becoming a launching pad for attacks on Israel, while the thorny question of Palestinian refugees would be dispatched with a call for an “agreed solution.” The result could be to complicate any eventual trade-off of Israeli concessions on territory for Palestinian give on the “return” of refugees, since the Security Council would already have mandated Israel’s position.
The U.S. draft probably would have one element that would please Netanyahu and infuriate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, however: a stipulation that Israel would remain the homeland of the Jewish people. Abbas’s categorical rejection of that principle helped to cause the breakdown of Kerry’s diplomacy, and it would almost certainly mean that the Palestinians would join Israelis in rejecting the resolution.
Why go forward with a text that both sides would spurn? Obama’s hope would be that his initiative could win unanimous support from the Security Council and thus set the terms of reference for a future settlement, presumably under different Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He could eventually become the grandfather of Middle East peace; at a minimum, diplomats who now talk of the “Clinton parameters” from 2000 would henceforth speak of the “Obama framework.”
There would be other effects, of course, among them an unprecedented breach in U.S.-Israeli relations and a vast acceleration of the global movement to boycott and sanction the Jewish state in the likely event it resisted the U.N. terms. But judging from Obama’s demeanor in assailing Netanyahu last week, the president might welcome that legacy, too.