The last U.S. president to go to Israel for a state funeral was Bill Clinton 20 years ago, when the prospects for peace in the Middle East seemed nearly within reach.
On Friday, President Obama, who made a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central part of his foreign policy, joined other world leaders in Jerusalem to mourn another Israeli leader.
Rarely has peace seemed more distant or unattainable.
The funeral for former Israel president and prime minister Shimon Peres, 93, is drawing leaders from around the globe. They are gathering to celebrate the life of one of Israel’s founders but also to mourn the Jewish leader most closely identified with a “two-state solution” to the decades-long conflict between Arabs and Jews.
A big question hovering over Peres’s funeral is whether the solution he championed has died with him.
Two decades earlier, Clinton addressed that same question at the funeral for Israel’s slain prime minister. “Look at the leaders from all over the Middle East and around the world who have journeyed here today for Yitzhak Rabin, and for peace,” Clinton said as he surveyed the crowd.
Obama on Friday will look out on a very different tableau — one that includes a peace process that has broken down completely and offers few viable options or partners to help to repair it.
From his earliest days in the White House, Obama has viewed a Palestinian state as an essential part of his strategy to blunt the forces of repression and resentment that still dominate the Middle East.
The decades-long conflict has cost thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives. And it was used by dictators throughout the Arab world to stoke hatred toward the West and maintain their hold on power. “Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression,” Obama said in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring.
In the early days of the Arab uprisings, Obama hoped that the toppling of old autocracies and spread of democracy might reinvigorate the peace process. Today, though the Middle East is gripped by chaos, there is little indication that Obama will make any last-ditch push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office.
“His test has always been, ‘Can I make a positive difference by engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?’ ” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said last week at the United Nations. “We’ve tried multiple tactics. None of them have succeeded, given the fact that the parties themselves have been unable to come together.”
Some analysts and former government officials pinned the president’s failings on his risk-averse nature and his unwillingness to take chances like some of his predecessors, including Clinton and President Jimmy Carter.
Others faulted him with not being more persistent when the peace process stalled. The president’s approach was “too binary,” said Dennis Ross, a former top official in the Obama administration who oversaw Middle East policy. When he could not see a path forward to solving the entire Israeli-Palestinian problem, Ross said, Obama abandoned the effort.
Still others said Obama was never able to find the right partners or overcome the mistrust of an Israeli public that was frustrated by wave after wave of terrorist attacks and war. Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which fractured over the expansion of Israeli settlements and Washington’s nuclear deal with Iran, proved especially troublesome for Obama in trying to advance a peace process.
“President Obama would have loved to have had a Prime Minister Shimon Peres to have worked with on the peace process,” said Nathan Diament, director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “But a lot of what happens in history is determined by the people who are in place at the time.”
The challenge for the next president will be to reinvigorate the possibility of a two-state solution even if the path forward seems uncertain.
“I think eventually the two-state solution will rebound, particularly because all the other options are so unacceptable,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the State Department under Obama.
To that end, Peres’s funeral on Friday could represent an important moment for Israel and for Obama. Peres was far from a pacifist. He played a critical role in the buildup of Israel’s military and its at-the-time-unacknowledged nuclear program. He was an early proponent of settlements, especially in Hebron, that remain a major barrier to a peace deal.
Even today, many Palestinians view his push for a two-state peace deal as a cynical maneuver that has allowed for the expansion of settlements.
But Peres’s role as one of the nation’s Zionist founders assures that his memory will remain a powerful force in Israeli society. “He is being embraced across the entire Israeli political spectrum as an icon of the state, and that says something,” Ross said.
His death presents Obama and many Israelis a chance to reflect on the country’s founding democratic principles and the long-standing hopes for peace. “What a statesman like Obama can and should do is to remind people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there is something they should be aiming for,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Washington-based advocacy group J Street.
To that end, Peres’s life offers an important lesson for some. “He was always talking about the future of Israel, even at age 93,” Goldenberg said.
That spirit of possibility and optimism was evident in his final tweet.
“This week I turned 93, and it seemed like just the right age to join @Snapchat,” Peres wrote.