Obama Apparently Giving Up On Quixotic Bid For ‘Middle East Peace’

President Obama has apparently come to the same realization as many of his predecessors, that trying to craft a legacy by single-handedly bring about "Middle East Peace" is largely a waste of time.


Like pretty much very President since Richard Nixon, and possibly going back even earlier than that, Barack Obama has made the discovery that trying to enhance his legacy with a breakthrough in the Middle East, specifically a resolution of some kind in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is an exercise in futility:

President Obama has concluded that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is beyond reach during his presidency and will press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to preserve the mere possibility of a two-state solution, senior administration officials said Thursday.

The issue has taken on greater importance with the recent wave of stabbings carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, senior administration members said during a conference call with reporters about Netanyahu’s visit next week.

They said that the administration has become “realistic” that there might not even be negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials before Obama leaves office. In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said his government would no longer consider itself bound by the Oslo peace agreements in effect for two decades, charging that Israel had failed to live up to its obligations.

Rob Malley, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, said that for the first time in two decades, an American administration “faces the reality” that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not in the cards for the remainder” of a presidency. That, he said, has “led to a reassessment not only of what we can do but of what the parties can do.”

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said, “From the prime minister, we’ll want to hear what his views are for how the Israeli government can take steps” to build confidence and “to make clear that there is an aspiration” for a two-state solution, which Rhodes said was the only way forward.

What those steps might be wasn’t clear, though Rhodes and Malley said that the expansion of West Bank settlements remained an issue. Malley said the president would ask “how does the prime minister see things going forward” and hear his ideas of “what can be done in the absence of negotiations.”

Sources close to the U.S. and Israeli governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is particularly worried about the expansion of settlements and the possibility of what one source called “creeping annexation.”

Middle East experts said other steps might include measures to improve economic conditions and ease movement through checkpoints.

The tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be just one of the items on the agenda when Obama and Netanyahu meet. They will also discuss the next 10-year memorandum of understanding on military cooperation between the United States and Israel; the chaotic situation in Syria; how to counter Iranian threats to Israel, either from Syria or through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza; and the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal that Obama championed and Netanyahu ardently opposed.

To some degree, I suppose, one should give the President credit for coming to this realization before he and his Secretary of State ended up spending time and energy fourteen months trying to bring about something that clearly doesn’t seem likely to happen. Previous American Presidents and their Secretaries of State have taken upon themselves the task of bringing about “peace” in the Middle East, often with great fanfare. In some cases, obviously, they were overestimating their ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Most of all, though, it was clear that these Presidents were looking for an avenue by which to establish a Presidential legacy at a time when they’ve basically entered lame duck status at home and their ability accomplish anything domestically was being overshadowed by their lame duck status and the fact that most of Washington, and many Americans, were looking beyond the incumbent and concentrating on the race to determine who the next President will be. It is, I suppose, an understandable course of action. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been at the center of the various conflicts in the Middle East for the better part of nearly seventy years now, and it must be quite tempting for any President who believes that the problem could be solved if only they could be the ones to get both sides talking.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some successes when American Presidents have gotten involved in the Middle East peace process, of course. The most notable examples of that can be found in the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel during President Carter’s time in office and the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization during President Clinton’s time in office. The interesting thing about both of those cases, though, is that they occurred relatively early in the terms of the American Presidents involved. The Camp David Accords occurred in the second year of Carter’s term, for example, and the initial agreements in the Oslo Accord were signed in Washington in the second year of President Clinton’s first term. Thanks largely to the Iran Hostage Crisis, President Carter never really pursued additional efforts at Middle East Peace after Camp David. President Clinton was slightly more successful with a memorandum that came out of talks in 1998, but these were largely a continuation of the Oslo process begun five years earlier. When Clinton tried to push the process further in 2000, it proved to be utterly unsuceessfully. Similarly, an effort by the first Bush Administration and the Soviet Union to bring the parties together in Madrid in 1991 in the wake of the Persian Gulf War proved to be largely unsuccessful. The efforts of other Americans Presidents proved to be even more forlorn in that they didn’t even result in the scheduling of talks between the parties. Ultimately, of course, all of these efforts proved to be unsuccessful in that they failed to reach their real goal, the creation of some sort of comprehensive final resolution of the issues between Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab world that resolves issues that the parties have been fighting about in one form or another since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

There’s one thing that differentiates the successful efforts made the American Presidents from those that have failed, of course, and that is the fact that the parties involved were willing to talk to each other to begin with or had already begun the process of talking before the United States became involved. Most famously, Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin were talking and meeting long before President Carter brought them to Camp David to hammer out a final agreement. Similarly, Yitzhak Rabin was at least willing to talk to Yassir Arafat and other PLO representatives during the run-up to the Oslo Accords, and Arafat had seemingly finally come to the realization that pursuing a strategy of terrorism was doomed to fail. Without those elements in place, any effort by any American President to bring about that elusive “Middle East Peace” is going to fail.

This is, in the end, the problem President Obama faces, because for differing reasons neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict trusts each other enough to take the next step in the peace process. From the Israeli point of view, the fact that Hamas continues to control Gaza under a putative agreement with the Palestinian Authority is an issue due to that organizations refusal to even acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist, and it’s efforts to attack innocent Israelis, something most recently manifested in last year’s murders and rocket attacks that led to a conflict that lasted more than a month. Now, Israelis are dealing with a rash of knife attacks by Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank, against Israeli civilians that have resulted in death and injury, a problem that the Palestinian Authority seems unwilling to do anything about. The Palestinians contend that Israel’s efforts to expand settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem are making any talks impossible and have instead tried to pursue efforts to gain independent recognition of their “independence,” even though any such recognition would be meaningless without an agreement with Israel. Add into all of this the ongoing war in Syria, which has brought Hezbollah into the mix, and the idea that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were going to be able to bring about some mythical peace agreement was really kind of silly to begin with. At the very least, I suppose, it’s good that the White House has recognized the futility of their efforts before wasting too much time, and the credibility and prestige of the United States, on a process that was doomed to fail anyway.

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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. Barfour says:

    This is a situation in which you can’t take the horse, or horses, to the river, let alone make them drink. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic but I don’t think peace between Israel and the Palestinians will ever happen. And if it happens, it will be decades from now.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    All the sides in this decades long tragedy have trafficked in their own versions of reality. Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese, etc al base their calculations on a shared “knowledge” of the regional history that is basically opportunistic lies. Without an effort to move the common people beyond these ethnic fantasies, there is no hope of acceptance for any settlement. And even if leadership had the will that is a generational effort. Jimmy Carter was right a decade ago when he said Israel was marching down the path of apartheid. And the Palestinian leaders have long given up the betterment of their peoples situation in favor of promoting victimhood in order to hang onto power.

  3. stonetools says:

    “Eight hundred years from now, long after people have forgotten there was such a thing as the United States of America, Israelis and Palestinians will be fighting each other with spears, knives, sticks, and stones. ”

    That’s the set up for Michael’s next dystopian novel.
    Or a reasonably realistic prediction of the future Middle East.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    “Everyone in the Mideast is nuts.” (fellow physicist, Christian-Arab background, born in Bethlehem, emigrated to US)

    “There must be something in the Mideast that renders men insane.” A.J.P. Taylor, noted historian.

    I figure that anyone who worried more about their kids’ lives than their own has already left the place. So what we’re left with are the sort of people who can carry a grudge for 2000 years.

    Too bad we can’t just build a big wall around the place and just let it be.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @grumpy realist: I agree. These various tribes have been fighting each other for over 2,000 years. We should quit giving them money and arms and let them fight it out.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @grumpy realist: I agree. These various tribes have been fighting each other for over 2,000 years. We should quit giving them money and arms and let them fight it out.

  7. Lounsbury says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    Actually this is ahistorical nonsense, a faux wisdom based on a gross lack of knowledge of actual -rather the mythologized – history.

    Excluding the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, the various Pax Islamicas in the specific neighbourhood – and perhaps more specfically and recently the Pax Ottomana – the region was rather more stable and peaceful than Europe with little intra-inhabitant warfare.

    It’s complete ignorant rubbish (and ironically rather racist in the broad sense) to blither on about Those Tribes fighting each other for 2k years.

    And commentators like to make snide comments about the locals various invented histories…

    The current and modern problem is modern, not some atavistic ancient challenge.

  8. Tyrell says:

    This is interesting : “Iran Demonstrators Burn US Flags and President Obama In Effigy !! ” They were also displaying signs that said “Death to America”. If my memory is working correctly, it seems like a while back the President signed some agreement with the Iranian leaders that they promise to not make any nuclear weapons. After what I saw and heard on the news (NBC), the Pres needs to take that agreement straight to the shredder. And he should demand an apology, just to keep things interesting.

  9. Gustopher says:

    Has foreign intervention ever brought peace?

    I think we need to scale back our objectives a bit. We should intervene to prevent genocide, we should intervene when one party is becoming a thorn in our side, and we should throw up our hands in nearly every other case.

    ISIS, al Quaeda, and any government that supports them are a thorn in our side. Hit them hard.

    Beyond that? We should prefer secular governments that protect minority rights to nonsecular, stability to chaos, democracy to dictatorships, and be willing to drop our preference for the third if it rules out the other two.

    Assad is less worse than ISIS or a long running civil war. And, given that there is a refugee crisis now, and there really wasn’t when Assad held power, it’s pretty clear that the people of Syria agree.

    It might be nice to tie our support for Israel to democratic reforms — but we shouldn’t care if they want a two state solution or to welcome the Palestinians into their society as equal partners with equal rights… The Israelis are doing a poor job of protecting the Palestinians in their care, and we should call hem on it.

  10. Andre Kenji says:

    Frankly, I don´t see how Israel can be a Jewish State and widely Democratic(Meaning, a Egalitarian and Secular society) at the same time.

  11. stonetools says:


    I hope you are right about this, Lounsbury. Would be interested to hear some of your ideas about how to fix what seem to be intractable problems there. Frankly, it does seem like the whole region is making all the mistakes Europe has made in last 400 years-all at once . Unfortunately, it looks like your country had a hand in creating the mess back around 1917-20-although they had plenty of help.

  12. stonetools says:


    I hope you are right about this, Lounsbury. Would be interested to hear some of your ideas about how to fix what seem to be intractable problems there. Frankly, it does seem like the whole region is making all the mistakes Europe has made in last 400 years-all at once . Unfortunately, it looks like your country had a hand in creating the mess back around 1917-20-although they had plenty of help.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @grumpy realist:

    It’s not an insanity limited to the ME. Limited resources and high population does that to nearly everybody everywhere and had done so since the first batch of monkeys figured out that if they banded together they could have the best, maybe only, fruit trees.

    “Which ever flag we pick, it’s just a self deluding trick.” -or something like that- damn skippy! We tribe up around something, anything will do, and get on with it.

    More to the point the current Israeli government has decided to annex the West Bank and we are, for the moment, done pretending otherwise and/or actively and covertly support it. Also, if the Izzies are going appoint publicity guys who openly call a US president anti-semetic we are being asked to butt out anyway.

  14. Jenos Idanian says:

    There’s an old aphorism in journalism — “if your mother says she loves you, check it.”

    Can anyone cite any examples that demonstrate that the Palestinians are actually interested in peace? In coexistence with Israel?

  15. bill says:

    “mid-east peace”, what a joke. hate to sound jaded but it’s been a political football for nearly 50 yrs.
    all the money/lives wasted just aren’t worth it- let Israel be, they can take care of themselves and anyone who messes with them.