Open Zion

03.15.13

Obama’s Peace Process Test: Ariel University

In lieu of a speech to the Knesset, President Obama will speak at the Jerusalem Convention Center (a monstrous but not unpleasant venue), to the Israeli public directly. As part of the promotion for the event, Obama’s people are inviting students from Israel’s universities—that is, those that fall within the Green Line. Students from Ariel University—which was recently upgraded to that status after a long and controversial struggle—are specifically not invited.

After a small uproar, the Administration has explained this exclusion by the fact that only universities with whom the American embassy in Tel Aviv has some kind of program have been invited; it doesn’t have a program or partnership with Ariel, and so it was only proper to leave it out. When my colleague Sigal Samuel pressed the embassy directly for which universities, specifically, are invited, she was told: “Usually with embassy programs, we don’t really release the guest list.” The embassy is also holding a contest on its Facebook page, in which it will select up to 20 people based on the “originality and creativity” of their request to attend the speech.

It seems, then, that this is not a boycott of an institution that exists in a West Bank settlement that is hotly disputed in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But the more important implication here is what this tells us about Obama’s approach to the peace process for the next four years. Because this is the first real test of how committed he is to the resolving the conflict, and how determined he is to stand up to Israeli pressure.

Washington’s longstanding position is that the settlements are not legitimate because the West Bank’s final disposition is subject to negotiations. Obama’s first effort to enforce this was to convince Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a 10-month settlement freeze. But it was highly qualified—it didn’t include projects already underway or any building within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. And when Mahmoud Abbas refused to come to the table until the freeze was about to run out, Obama was unable to convince Netanyahu to adopt another three-month freeze. He “buckled” and gave up, and for all intents and purposes refused to re-engage after that.

Now Obama is strengthened by re-election, including support from the American Jewish community. His nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, was voted into office by the Senate despite a vicious campaign by far-right pro-Israel groups. AIPAC isn’t looking for a fight with him now, especially while it has a tough legislative agenda of its own to push. And Bibi is considerably weakened by the results of the Israeli election and the new coalition.

If he chooses to, Obama can use the example of Ariel students to signal his determination on the peace process and the settlements. As Mairav Zonszein reminds us, it is against the law in Israel to advocate for any type of boycott of settlements, and a case might actually be made under this law against Obama’s decision to exclude Ariel students. By refusing to give in on the issue, Obama’s message would be that much more powerful.

He can say: Look, I’ve been clear that Israel’s security is among my top priorities, and I remain committed to it. I’m committed to helping protect Israel from Iran. But I also believe (as I reiterated in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 yesterday) that resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is as critical to Israel’s future security and prosperity; and resolving the conflict requires withdrawal from most of the West Bank, as close to the Green Line as possible. I cannot, then, support engagement with any institution located in the West Bank. My message is clear: the settlements are an obstacle to peace. But my commitment to the State of Israel is just as clear.

But if he buckles, again, he’ll end up mumbling something like: This is not the right time to push on Ariel. What happens to the settlements is to be determined through negotiations between the parties. I am here in Israel to speak directly to all Israelis, to let them know I support their country and understand their concerns.

How Obama handles things from here will tell us much about how committed he is to pressuring Israel (and, by extension, the Palestinians as well) into serious negotiations. If he sticks to the decision he’ll be telling Israel that the settlements really are obstacles and need to go. If he gives in, and invites Ariel students, he’ll be telling Israel there really is no difference between sovereign Israel and the Israeli-controlled West Bank. It’s hard to believe that such a message would be taken as anything but vindication in Israel and despair in Palestine.