For all the talk about talks during Barack Obama's visits in Israel and Palestine, new action seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. In Jerusalem, Obama said "the world can change," but not that it would change today. "Obama presumably also knows that making one speech and then hoping that the Israeli public will do the rest of the work is not serious," Daniel Levy observed. Obama, then, seems decidely unserious. Over the next three and a half years that Obama is in office, the President promised, Israel will get unconditional support. Money will flow, diplomatic cover will be steadfast, and the U.S. will take Israel under its security umbrella. Those things are clear: “Ah-tem lo lah-vahd," Obama told the crowd, uttering the Hebrew for, "You are not alone." It's the "benign" in what Peter Beinart reported as Obama's expected "benign neglect" policies toward the Holy Land.
The "neglect" part is where things get worse before they get better, owing nothing to what Obama does or doesn't do: that, like the lack of positive change, will come in large part because of Israel's leadership. Yair Lapid paid lip service to the two-state solution during his campaign, but after coalition talks, he looks set for marginalization in the finance ministry. The only other player in the government who wants to talk at all is Tzipi Livni, the new Justice Minister with responsibility for the Palestinian portfolio. She will serve in the “most right-wing nationalist government ever,” said Israeli leftist academic Shlomo Avineri immediately after a recent speech by Livni. He added sarcastically, “But good luck to her.”
Pro-settlement factions in this government don't need any luck; they have the power. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported last week that Israeli President Shimon Peres told Obama few, if any, gains could be made in the stalled peace process—if such a thing can be said to still exist—owing to Netanyahu's coalition. Those warnings are well-founded: a senior official from Israel's ruling Likud party today told Maariv that Livni would be blocked by the coalition agrement that includes Jewish Home, a party that wants to annex most of the West Bank, and other right-wing parties. Likud itself is dominated by pro-annexation politicians. Those factions are all included on a super-committee which has oversight over negotiations, a part of Jewish Home's deal to join the government. "How can you hold negotiations with such limitations?" the official said of Livni. "Of course if the Prime Minister really wanted to he could, but at the moment, what she thinks needs to be done is not at all what the Prime Minister thinks."
After Obama's criticisms that settlements were "counterproductive" to the cause of a Palestinian state, Jewish Home Knesset Member Ayalet Shaked wrote on Facebook that Israelis oppose such a state. "This is why the people elected, just this week, a government whose guidelines do not support the idea of two states," she said. "The president of the United States, for whom democracy is a beacon, has to respect that." (Note the lack of self awareness required to demand democratic respect for permanently disenfranchising millions of Palestinians.)
But Israeli coalition agreements and cabinet postings aren't the settlement movement's only victories of late: they won another, with much symbolism, on the other side of Israel's separation wall. Arriving in Ramallah, into Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's heavily fortified compound, Obama all but told the leadership of this rump state that he wouldn't back its longstanding demand that Israel freeze its settlements before new talks resume. It left a sour taste in the mouths of some; a PLO official told The National they were "cursing the television screen." And why not? Congress constantly battles the administration over giving them any financial aid at all, even as the patronage system that keeps them in power falls apart. Then Obama comes to town and asks them to drop a demand he's previously backed, and one, no less, that many think could have acted to stem deterioration of the status quo.
Just across the valley from Ramallah sits Beit El, a major religious-national settlement and the headquarters of the Israeli military's civil administration, which runs the occupation. A settler news organization there, called Arutz Sheva, wasn't shy about celebrating Obama's remarks to Abbas and the Palestinians: "Obama to PA: Forget About Preconditions, Building Freeze," their headline read after the visit. The settlement movement's stated goal is to move a million settlers into the West Bank; Obama raised the flag of surrender here. The American pressure that John Judis rightly points to as having spurred previous Israeli concessions will be completely absent this go around.
The only wild-card is the Secretary of State John Kerry, who is said to be "obsessed" with the issue. According to Haaretz, Kerry and Obama will work over the next three to six months to see what's feasible. If the above dynamics hold, they'll find the answer is, "Not much." Then it's a matter if Kerry will be given the necessary support from the White House. History might be a guide here: George Mitchell, Obama's early envoy for Mideast peace, had his legs cut out from under him, and stepped down with little more than a huge gas bill of shuttle diplomacy. Kerry's likely to run up the Exxon tab too: he met Abbas in Jordan and Netanyahu in Israel, and rumors swirl that he'll put forth an intitiave soon, likely an elusive "confidence-building measure" (Haaretz's Ravid reported a three to six month window to nail one down). Even if Kerry gets a long enough leash, Daniel Levy points out that myriad other obstacles to meaningful talks remain: the lack of "consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism"; a divided Palestinian body politic; and a plan to deal with Israel's factional and unforgiving "tribal" politics.
If Kerry can't sell Obama on his bid, the peace process, such that it is, won't be going anywhere anytime soon. The most salient feature of Obama's rousing Jerusalem speech was the audience to which it was delivered: college kids. Obama spoke about what Israel must do in terms of generations, its future: "You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future." Given the Israeli government's make-up, Obama gave the students food for thought to chew over before their next elections, in the absolute shortest term. That could be four years away, if Netanyahu's coalition holds together. By that time, Obama will no longer be president.