Obama’s Calculated Middle East Game: Can He Bring Peace?

The blueprint Obama laid out in his speech seemed to outrage Netanyahu more than Abbas, but Dan Ephron says the arithmetic is a little more complicated this time.

Who gained and who lost from President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Thursday? In the standard practice of Middle East scorekeeping, you can usually tell by the reaction of each side. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the speech—suggesting he was on the losing end—while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas praised it. But the arithmetic this time is more complicated.

Obama sided with Israel on a number of key issues. He called for new talks between the sides without demanding a settlement freeze from the Jewish state—a departure from his policy of two years. He said the participation of the Islamic Hamas group in the Palestinian government was problematic. And he warned Palestinians against taking their quest for statehood to the United Nations this fall, a maneuver that has Israelis increasingly agitated. Netanyahu had been seeking an American promise to veto such a U.N. resolution in the Security Council and had planned to raise the issue at his meeting with Obama in Washington today. The speech spared him the need.

Seventeen words in the address irked Netanyahu: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” In peacemaking shorthand, the line means Israel should give up more than 90 percent of the West Bank while retaining a few clusters of settlements (from a total of nearly 150) it established since occupying the area. In exchange for those clusters, Israel would cede roughly equal amounts of land to the Palestinians from within the Jewish state. Previous Israeli leaders had sought to keep between 6 and 10 percent of the West Bank for these settlement blocs. Abbas has offered 1.9 percent.

For both sides, there are bitter pills to swallow.

Netanyahu has never outlined publicly how much of the West Bank he would be willing to cede. But in talks with Abbas last September, he insisted that Israel maintain control over the Jordan Valley, a wide border area encompassing about 29 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu says only continued Israeli deployment in the area could ensure weapons are not smuggled into Palestine from neighboring Jordan. When you factor in more land for the settlement blocks, Netanyahu’s vision of Palestinian independence comes into focus: a state on about 60 percent of the West Bank. In other words, the gap between his plan and the one Obama outlined is huge.

On the Palestinian side, the scorecard is also mixed. Abbas had long sought American recognition of the 1967 border as the basis for a peace agreement. Other lines in the speech also must have pleased the Palestinian leader. Obama said the status quo of Israeli occupation was not only unsustainable but undermined the “dream of a Jewish and democratic state”—a central trope of the Israeli peace camp. Abbas has spent much of the past 24 hours consulting with aides on how to respond to the speech—specifically whether to agree to a new round of negotiations.

But acquiescing to talks without a settlement freeze would be a major backtrack for Abbas and probably hurt his public standing. Moreover, Obama’s sharp denunciation of the U.N. gambit must surely have been a disappointment. Abbas told Newsweek just last month he thought Obama would come around to supporting a resolution for Palestinian statehood.

If talks do get under way—hard to imagine as Abbas tries to forge a new government with Hamas—they won’t focus on two issues which are key for the Palestinians: the fate of Jerusalem and their demand for repatriation to Israel of refugees from 1948. Under Obama’s blueprint, those matters will be left to the end. For both sides, there are bitter pills to swallow.

Dan Ephron has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire.