PRESIDENT OBAMA’S assessment this week of the prospects for Middle East peace was sobering but realistic. For now, he said, “there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework . . . that would lead to a Palestinian state”; consequently, “that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that will be dangerous for everybody.”
Mr. Obama said this risk requires him to “evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years” without pretending that a two-state peace settlement can be reached. He said: “We can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen.” For those who have criticized the administration for its unwarranted conviction that a peace deal was within reach, that is a welcome change.
The curious thing about Mr. Obama’s statement is that he portrayed this state of affairs as a recent development, attributing it to an election-eve statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier said pretty much what the president did: For now, the conditions don’t exist for creating a Palestinian state. Mr. Obama’s conceit was that this heat-of-the-campaign declaration somehow created this lamentable situation — and that Mr. Netanyahu’s subsequent clarifications, in which he said he continues to favor a two-state solution, were irrelevant.
Though Mr. Netanyahu is hardly blameless for the Mideast impasse, the attempt to portray the Israeli leader as a single-handed spoiler makes no sense. In fact, the “framework” for a Palestinian state painstakingly assembled by Secretary of State John F. Kerry was also spurned by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and the “peace process” has been dormant since that happened nearly a year ago. Moreover, Mr. Obama’s efforts to promote a settlement, going back to 2009, ignored innumerable warnings (including from this page) that he was premising his diplomacy on breakthroughs that were not achievable. It is Mr. Obama who has long been pretending, and he compounds his mistake by claiming that the reality he now accepts was created 10 days ago by Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric.
We’d like to believe the campaign the White House has waged against Mr. Netanyahu for the past week reflects a strategy for heading off the “downward spiral” Mr. Obama warned of, as opposed to pique or vindictiveness. Preventing Israeli-Palestinian relations from deteriorating to the point where they provoke the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the eruption of another bloody uprising in the West Bank ought to be one of the administration’s Middle East priorities.
At best, U.S. pressure, if combined with some quieter diplomacy, could prompt the new Israeli government Mr. Netanyahu is forming to take steps that preserve the possibility of Palestinian statehood, as well as ease relations with Washington. We have urged that Israel restrict settlement construction to areas that everyone understands it is likely to annex in a future settlement; it also should stop withholding the tax payments that it collects for the Palestinian administration.
However, Mr. Obama appears to be considering breaking with long-standing U.S. policy by supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution on the terms for Palestinian statehood. That might provide the president with a superficial legacy and satisfy his desire to wage political war against Mr. Netanyahu. But it wouldn’t improve the regrettable status quo he described.