Now that the Obama administration believes it’s on its way to achieving an Iranian nuclear deal, what about the president’s and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry’s other key priority—Israeli-Palestinian peace? Having stood up to Congress, Israel, and the pro-Israeli community on Iran, why not push full steam ahead on the two-state solution?
Having been around the peace process a good number of years, I can say it’s foolish to say never. Like rock and roll, the peace process will never die. But that said, the odds that the Obama administration will be able to build on an Iran deal and get to two states are pretty long ones. On the contrary, the wreckage that negotiating and selling this deal may leave in its wake has only complicated that task.
In place of serious negotiations, we may well see before the end of the administration any number of virtual gambits, including some kind of effort at the United Nations or a statement of Obama Parameters to keep hope of the two-state solution alive, and sadly some all too real blood-letting on the ground.
Already in the Hole: The Obama administration entered 2015 with huge challenges standing in the way of success in the two-state enterprise: Big gaps on the core issue and profound mistrust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas; a yet-to-be-formed Israeli government that lacks both the will and the motivation to take risks; and a deeply divided and weak Palestinian national movement pursuing an international campaign at the U.N. and International Criminal Court to pressure and isolate Israel augur badly for any foundation on which to build. Secretary Kerry’s 2013-2014 mediation effort demonstrated pretty clearly that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process wasn’t ready for prime time.
Obama and Netanyahu—the Odd Couple: The entire Iranian issue has left a lot of broken crockery in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And the relations between Netanyahu and Obama aren’t likely to improve. They are already miles apart on their conceptions of a two-state solution. The prime minister’s campaign walk-away from the idea and the administration’s public pile-on afterward reflected anger and frustration that lingers. A really good Iranian deal on the nuclear issue might have given the administration leverage to make the case that, now more secure than ever, Israel ought to consider peacemaking with the Palestinians. But there never was a real chance of that. And the prime minister has now launched phase two of his effort to protest the deal publicly, trying to improve it, perhaps, but above all working with Congress to somehow constrain it. None of these activities will be appreciated by a White House that considers the nuclear deal its chief foreign policy legacy. And should the deal be consummated, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be in no mood to be forthcoming on a peace process he doesn’t believe in.
Palestinians—Going their own way: Buoyed by nearly worldwide criticism of Israel and by the Obama administration’s ant-Bibi campaign, Abbas will not easily be turned from his international effort to gain recognition at the U.N. and recent membership in the ICC. He won’t abandon the idea of negotiations; but without major concessions from Israel on 1967 borders, Abbas isn’t going to leap into them either. In fact, hints by the Obama administration that it’s more open to some kind of U.N. Security Council resolution will keep him pointed away from the negotiating table. And it’s just as well. Any effort to re- launch talks would almost certainly fail. Then there’s the pesky problem of a Palestinian national movement split between Hamas and Fatah that looks a little like Noah’s Ark, with two of everything from constitutions to security services to quasi-states.
Obama’s Bad Options: The administration has 20 months to deal with this mess. There will likely be violence on the ground; but no third intifada—yet. Kerry may try to resume his mediation effort, but likely without success. The Palestinians will pressure Israel abroad, but without much consequence. Most likely, the administration may try to work on some U.N. Security Council resolution that embodies the elements of a Palestinian state or at some point release its own view of a final deal. How any of this will help matters isn’t clear. And for the foreseeable future, the administration is likely going to be caught where it’s been for some time: looking at a two-state solution that’s too hard to attain and too important to abandon.