What Jackson Diehl Missed About Obama’s Next Steps for Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Benjy Cannon
on September 7, 2016

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Over the past weekend, Jackson Diehl had an interesting piece in the Washington Post that explored whether President Obama would renew his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the lame duck session. Unfortunately, Diehl incorrectly reduces President Obama’s interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a facet of his legacy considerations and feud with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Diehl makes a few worthwhile observations. He notes the bipartisan precedence for presidents laying out new Middle East initiatives in their final months in office – citing Reagan, Bush and Clinton. He points out the political rewards that Netanyahu and Obama stand to reap from finalizing the next memorandum of understanding on military aid to Israel.

It’s where he goes next that’s troubling. Diehl walks through the ins and outs of Netanyahu and Obama’s tumultuous relationship, which he uses as the basis for whether Obama will act again on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Diehl concludes that if Obama decides to lay out parameters to pursue a resolution to the conflict or advance a resolution at the UN, it will be to “run up the score” against Netanyahu and solidify his legacy as the “grandfather of a two-state solution.”

President Obama’s calculations here, however, are almost certainly not based on Diehl’s notions of a petty “rivalry” with Netanyahu. Lumping the last eight years of the US-Israel relationship under the umbrella of Netanyahu and Obama’s interpersonal dynamics ignores the real, substantive issues at stake. Yes, Netanyahu and Obama traded barbs over the Iran deal, but, despite the sometimes inappropriate politicking from Netanyahu’s end, there was a substantive disagreement over the deal’s merits.  Obama didn’t champion the Iran deal because he saw an opening to defeat Netanyahu, but because it prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon without dragging the United States into a military conflict.

The same is true for settlements, another issue that Diehl cites. While Israel and some US politicians have used settlements to score political points, the disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu over them runs far deeper. Settlements are an obstacle to a two-state solution. US administrations from both parties have consistently opposed settlement expansion because it makes a peace agreement harder to achieve and enflames tensions in the region, not because of personal animus between US presidents and Israeli prime ministers.

The same is likely true for Obama’s calculations going forward. While considerations about his legacy or personal relationships may be a factor, they’re hardly the whole story. US diplomatic leadership can help curtail settlement expansion and bring the sides closer to negotiations. That may be good for Obama’s legacy, but more importantly, it could advance US interests in the region and move us closer to a two-state solution.

Diehl concludes by stating that any US involvement in the conflict during the lame-duck period would be bad for the region, so Obama will have to weigh the negative consequences of it with his personal drive to quash Netanyahu and secure his legacy. This false equivalence perfectly encapsulates the problem with Diehl’s argument. An “Obama plan,” rather than inflaming the situation is more likely to create a more conducive atmosphere for negotiations. There’s no tension between the more personal and broader geopolitical considerations that Diehl lays out.

Rather than hamstringing the next administration, as Diehl claims, Obama’s next steps would create a productive foundation for resuming negotiations. These – rather than considerations about his relationship with world leaders – should determine what the President does next, and how he is remembered.