Obama’s REAL strategy on Israel-Palestine

The Acrobat – by David Samuels > Tablet Magazine – A New Read on Jewish Life


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.


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11 comments on “Obama’s REAL strategy on Israel-Palestine

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  1. Love that link to Lee Smith’s sneer at “the imaginary Palestinian moderate “.

    Got to love someone thinking that Palestinians, unlike most everybody else in the world, are unable to like other people and yet still shallow that dislike in order to live their own lives.
    Must be nice to be Lee Smith and never have to understand that people are able to be discontented yet still pacific.

  2. Didn’t notice the Lee Smith link, and don’t see how essential it is or was to the larger argument. I thought Samuels’ analysis was interesting, and closer to the truth than a lot of what passes for analysis.

    Look at the reaction the article gets in Tablet’s comment thread – not HotAir, not NRO, but Tablet.

    That much bile and blind fanaticism suggests to me that Samuels is on the right track.

    As I wrote in the thread:

    Obama has to deal with a lot of people working from the implicit assumptions of most of these commenters: That an eternal occupation/apartheid or mass expulsion/transfer will be politically and practically sustainable, since those are the only alternatives to separation, whether negotiated or forced.

    Samuels seems to be saying that Obama has effectively signed on to Soffer/Morris/Sharon realism. Yes, it’s like Gaza, but serious proponents, as opposed to propagandists, never thought that leaving Gaza would create sweetness and light. Soffer in particular has been called a “fascist” for his hard-nosed (and excessively inhumane) comments about what geographic and demographic reality as he saw it would require – continued violence. The WB is not Gaza, however. It’s a better consolation prize, though probably not independently viable. That means that it will be up to the international community and Israel as well to help make it viable enough, and to prevent it from becoming a terror state, until perhaps a new generation of leaders, and peoples, are ready and able to think and act beyond what’s currently on offer for all concerned.

  3. Yes I saw that on the West Wing, apparently Samantha Power, has similar notions, although to protect the Palestinians, then again the Egyptian army might do in a pinch. If there hadn’t been three wars
    before ’67, then they might have a point, but they don’t.

  4. @ CK MacLeod:

    I tend to believe that the right of return isn’t anywhere near to as difficult as J’slem.

    The ROR can be honored if it’s understood in it’s traditional meaning, rather than the fantastic claim that the Palestinian partisans proffer.

  5. @ fuster:
    They’re both practically solvable – you might even say that they are solved – and rhetorically unsolvable. Neither Arafat nor Abbas ever came close in negotiation to saying “we give up the RoR” or “we give up claims to Jerusalem.” Even when offering recognition to Israel, they’ve never really moved irrevocably or formally beyond a more fundamental rejectionism. In this, what Samuels reports regarding his conversations with the moderates squares with Morris’ recitation and with that “Palileaks 2” piece Don Miguel linked us to.

    You yourself have pointed in recent days to the moral conundrum: The Pals can’t ever really surrender; the Israelis can’t ever reward intransigence. But on some level these are mere abstractions. The Pals have already surrendered and surrendered and surrendered. And the Israelis have rewarded and rewarded and rewarded. They just violently reject having it pointed out.

  6. @ CK MacLeod:

    The Pals can point to the thousands of old folks packing their rusty old keys and going for a walk to where their houses no longer stand and getting a bag full of cash to settle in a nice retirement home either in Israel of the West Bank, where they grandkids will get housing a lot less shoddy than the squalid camps they’re now stuffed into.

    I’ve got more trouble envisioning the face-saving photo-op in Jerusalem.

  7. @ fuster:
    Sure, but the question is how explicitly and loudly we expect them to advertise a choice of better lives over impossible aspirations. Why should they, unlike the rest of us, be forced to disclaim their beloved fantasies? As long as I don’t make Winona Ryder’s life difficult, I should be allowed to remain convinced that true justice requires her to be my mate, and I shouldn’t be forced to deny it, and probably can’t be forced to stop believing it.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:

    WINO FOREVER seems to indicate that it may not be worth the keeping even if the having is nice.

    The idea that the Palestinians are to be required to say much more than “okay, we’re not going to fight you any more and we’ll live next door” is pretty much some right-wing Israeli fantasy.

  9. How about we are not teach the children with Nahoul the bumblebee
    to aspire to martyrdom. lets start with small steps.

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