1. Jerusalem and the right of return are the issues on which the two sides are least likely to agree.
2. An agreement between the two sides on these or other issues has been further complicated by the pact between Fatah and Hamas.
Given these assumptions, the outlines of Obama’s proposed pathway to peace become clearer: a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank at the direction of the president in exchange for security guarantees and other inducements from the United States. The Israelis would be forced to remove settlements and bring their troops home from most of the West Bank as they did during the disengagement from Gaza. The Palestinians would be handed most of their state on a platter and could then simply wait until the president forced the Israelis to give way on Jerusalem and refugees, too.
So, why would Israel sign on to such a disaster-in-the-making? The answer is that they won’t, and won’t have to. While Obama’s negotiating strategy leaves room for Palestinians and Israelis to agree on refugees and Jerusalem, it pointedly does not assume that any such agreement will be reached—only that a “foundation” for possible future agreement will be laid. What Obama anticipates, then, is that an agreement probably won’t be reached, in which case the Israelis will withdraw from most of the West Bank, where the Palestinians will establish a sovereign and non-militarized state. As that happens, the Israelis will continue to hold onto Jerusalem, and the Palestinians will continue to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and demand the right of return. In fact, both sides are likely to harden their respective positions—the Israelis in the face of national trauma, and the Palestinians in the face of short-term triumph.
What Obama has very cleverly done therefore is to appropriate the Israeli proposal to establish a Palestinian state with interim borders—albeit on terms that the Israelis don’t particularly like. Yet each side stands to gain something very real from an interim arrangement that they would be unlikely to gain from an actual peace deal: The Palestinians would receive almost all of the territory they claim for an interim state—except Jerusalem—while holding on to their national dream of one day reclaiming all of Palestine from the Zionists. The Israelis, meanwhile, get a U.S.-sponsored end to the tar-baby of occupation and boatloads of shiny new weapons while holding on to major settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem. Hamas doesn’t have to sign a peace deal with the Israelis, and the Israelis don’t have to sign a peace deal with Hamas. America will benefit by having followed through on its promise—made by George W. Bush and repeated by Obama—to establish a Palestinian state. The millstone of Israeli occupation will be removed from around the necks of America and Israel, both of which will presumably find it easier to make friends in the Middle East.
All that is missing from this vision, of course, is the Jimmy Carter-era peace-treaty-signing ceremony photo-op on the White House lawn, whose chances of happening anytime in the near-to-intermediate future are close to zero. Unlike Bill Clinton, whose appetite for grand gestures often resulted in stalemates, or worse—including the nightmare of the Second Intifada—Obama the pragmatist may in fact view the signing of a symbolic peace treaty as negative for both sides. Eschewing symbolic triumphs for the creation of a new set of facts on the ground is a strategy that may not move fast enough for Obama to reap credit during his term in office, but—if it works—history will place victory at his feet. The Israeli occupation would, for the most part, be over; Hamas might take over the West Bank six months later, but the Israelis will have a recognized border and plenty of rockets, which will help them keep the peace just as well or badly as they do on Israel’s other borders, with less international fuss. Once the last Palestinian refugee dies in 2049, maybe someone will have the bright idea of trading some part of East Jerusalem and the Muslim quarter of the Old City for an end to ancient refugee claims and formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. By then, the president of the United States will probably have other problems to juggle. And if he needs a refresher course, he might just look back to Obama’s performance this past week.