Obama Administration Steps Back Into Israeli/Palestinian Quagmire

Once again, an American President is stepping into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, once again, he has no idea how to accomplish the goals he's established.

Barack Obama seems about to step out on the same quixotic search for comprehensive Middle East peace that his predecessors for the past 35 years have engaged in:

President Obama will embark on his deepest foray into Middle East peacemaking next month when he hosts Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to achieve what his predecessors could not: a deal to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel and end the two sides’ bitter conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Friday that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected in Washington on Sept. 2 for what will be the first face-to-face negotiations between the sides in two years. Clinton said she thinks a deal could be reached within a year.

The announcement marked a small victory for Obama, who had pledged to address the conflict early in his term but faces a daunting challenge in pulling off an agreement.

“Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles,” Clinton said. “The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere.”

That’s not going to be easy, to say the very least. For one thing, the Palestinians agreement to participate in the talks comes only after being pressured by American and European diplomats to agree to talks without preconditions. For that reason, among others, there’s actually very little hope that these talks will lead to anything productive:

The American invitation on Friday to the Israelis and Palestinians to start direct peace talks in two weeks in Washington was immediately accepted by both governments. But just below the surface there was an almost audible shrug. There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met.

Instead, there is a resigned fatalism in the air. Most analysts view the talks as pairing the unwilling with the unable — a strong right-wing Israeli coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no desire to reach an agreement against a relatively moderate Palestinian leadership that is too weak and divided to do so.

“These direct negotiations are the option of the crippled and the helpless,” remarked Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University and a Palestinian moderate, when asked his view of the development. “It is an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere.”

And Nahum Barnea, Israel’s pre-eminent political columnist, said in a phone interview: “Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?”

That such a dismissive tone comes not from the known rejectionists — the Islamists of Hamas who rule in Gaza and the leadership of the Israeli settler community in the West Bank — but from mainstream thinkers is telling of the mood.

Some Israelis who have spent their professional lives on peace talks with the Palestinians were upset by the fear that failed talks could prove worse than no talks. Yossi Beilin, for example, who left politics in 2008 after years as a leftist member of Parliament and government minister, said Friday that the Obama administration was wrong to set a one-year goal without consequences.

“I think this is a huge mistake by the U.S. administration,” he said by telephone. “There is not a chance in the world that in a year — or two or three — peace can be achieved. The gap between the sides is too big. Netanyahu did not come to power to divide Jerusalem or find a solution to the Palestinian refugees.”

Indeed not.

By and large, Netanyahu came to power on a platform that would seem to largely reject the very idea of further concessions to the Palestinians. This does not mean, of course, that he’d never agree to a peace deal (and, of course, in a “only Nixon can go to China” sort of way he may be the one Israeli leader capable of finally making peace). However, it’s clearly not his top priority and Netanyahu clearly doesn’t feel obligated to be conciliatory for the sake of his relationship with the American President.

So, what exactly is it that the Obama Administration thinks it’s going to accomplish here ?

Clearly, Secretary of State Clinton’s assertion that a comprehensive resolution of the Israel/Palestinian problem is just a year away is overly optimistic and probably just a little naive as well.

And, what happens if and when the talks don’t work ? The most notable thing about this announcement is who isn’t invited to the table — Hamas. Israel will never negotiate with Hamas, of course, and the Palestinian Authority would never sit down at a table where they weren’t the sole representatives of the Palestinian people. If the negotiations fail, however, it would discredit the idea of peace both in Israel and the West Bank/Gaza for the foreseeable future, and that would clearly benefit Hamas.

The Obama Administration has started a process of negotiations with no real chance that an agreement will come at the end. In doing so, they may have made even further conflict inevitable.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, come on Charlie Brown. This time Lucy will hold the football until you kick it.

    Granting the odds, there was a similar long history of failure on health reform. Yet, they got it done.

    Interesting that Ms. Clinton says within a year, and the administration says we have a year until Iran’s nuke program is a problem. Might there be a quid pro quo of some sort?

  2. Tano says:

    “Israel will never negotiate with Hamas, of course,”

    That is ridiculous. They have had plenty of under-the-radar discussions with Hamas, and they would gladly strike a deal with them if they could carve out something they felt was in their interest and would be enforced.

    “The Obama Administration has started a process of negotiations with no real chance that an agreement will come at the end.”

    That too is ridiculous. It is hugely in the interest of both Israel and Palestine that an agreement be reached. This conflict and all of the energies and resources it consumes, is an anchor around Israel’s neck, and Netanyahu certainly understands that.

    After Bush blew up the decades-long tradition of America trying to act as the honest broker between the two sides, the Palestinians have come to realize that with President Obama, who is trying to reclaim that role, they may have their last best chance of working with an American administration that is truly committed to a fair and equitable resolution. The Israelis too must realize that Obama may be the only figure capable of bringing the Palestinians to the table.

    If this opportunity is squandered, Israel could, no doubt, go on for quite some time with the status quo of the last decade – an uneasy period of relative calm, interruped by flareups on their various borders, but also a perpetual state of alienation from their neighbors. An uneasy bunker existence.

    I think Netanyahu understands his opportunity to be a historical figure. He is by now the one who occupies the “Nixon going to China’ position – he alone can “deliver’ the Israeli right. I suspect that he aspires to be remembered as the man who finally resolved Israel’s border wars and brought a lasting peace.

    Cynicism on these matters is a very easy and lazy posture. I think there are real possibliities here, and it would be criminal not to pursue them.

  3. reid says:

    I wish them luck and hope you’re printing and eating this web page in a year. Not likely, but hey, they have to try.

  4. tps says:

    What possibilities? Abbas isn’t really president because his term ran out months ago but is afraid to call elections. Then only he’s in what power he is in is because Israel occupies most of the West Bank. Not to just protect the settlers either but to prevent new bus bombings in Israel proper. Abbas can’t make any deals even if he wanted to because he would be dead if he did. Besides, they had to drag him to this conferance after he kept putting up new demands like all of Jereselum and not just the eastern part. No Jews, even ones in a foreign/UN/US peacekeeping force would be allowed to set foot on ‘sacred’ Palestinian soil.

    The other Arab countries don’t care about the Palestinians. Lebanon finally is going to allow the Pals to work in some jobs. No professional ones, doctor/lawyer/etc. Jordan is stripping citizenship from other Pals. As I said, they don’t care about them except as a propaganda tool.

    Netanyahu can’t bring the right because another mass withdrawl from the West bank like in Gaza won’t happen. Israel saw what the results were from that and they won’t do it again. There are questions as to if the IDF even has the stomach to do it considering a good chunk of the soldiers as from there. The latest polls in Israel say that any election now would increase the right wing so Netanyahu has to be careful not PO them or they might dump him from the party.

    Its a bunker existence but its one they are quite comfortable with after the chaos of the 2000’s.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    “Its a bunker existence but its one they are quite comfortable with after the chaos of the 2000′s.”

    And how long will simple demographics allow them to continue this “quite comfortable” bunker existence…