President Obama will meet today for what's likely the last time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and I have one question: Why?
I ask not because of the men's well-documented animosity; history is marked by leaders working together despite mutual loathing. I suppose there might be some loose ends on that recent $38 billion arms deal, but I imagine Obama and Netanyahu have people for that.
No, what I can't imagine is what the president hopes to achieve. There's speculation he's going to "push" Israel on peace with the Palestinians, but after eight years of watching Israel build settlements, move progressively rightward, and never miss an opportunity to thumb its nose at Obama and stated U.S. foreign policy, what's led the president to believe that this is the week Netanyahu will be swayed? Obama had his chance. He blew it.
It could be argued Obama has had eight years of chances, but that's not entirely accurate. There was certainly a chance to be grabbed early on. The first calls Obama made from the Oval Office (three days after Israel halted a military offensive in the Gaza Strip in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed) were to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu, and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan — and on his second day in office, Obama appointed veteran diplomat George Mitchell (previously chair of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland) as special envoy for Middle East peace.
Less than four months later, Obama travelled to Cairo and delivered a stirring speech in which he said "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable… America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." Before his first year was out, Obama had pressured Netanyahu sufficiently that the latter agreed, with an enormous display of reluctance, to freeze West Bank settlement construction for 10 months.
This was billed as an act of good faith to reanimate long-moribund peace talks — but accepting it as such required a kind of willful obtuseness. Consider that the Israeli government had already committed to freezing all settlement activity in 2003, and kept building anyway. The 2010 agreement covered only new construction, allowing work to continue wherever concrete had been poured — which led to a rush to pour concrete before the freeze took effect, allowing an enormous amount of construction to carry merrily along, and then speed up when the "freeze" ended.
In 2011, Obama explicitly stated that peace would require Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders; the speech in which he said this coincided with George Mitchell's resignation as special envoy. For while the man who'd facilitated peace in Belfast officially had the president's ear, Obama had come to depend increasingly on Dennis Ross, also a veteran diplomat, but one with a long history of coddling the Israeli government and failing to achieve peace.
The ensuing years saw another election and another Israeli offensive in Gaza; in 2013, Obama got what was arguably his last chance to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement when Secretary of State John Kerry launched nine months of shuttle diplomacy. Intended to achieve a framework agreement, Kerry's efforts ultimately became about just keeping Israelis and Palestinians at the table — and even that failed.
In the meantime, Israel launched a third, massive offensive in Gaza (more than 2,200 Palestinians killed; whole city blocks reduced to rubble), the past year has seen a precipitous rise in Palestinian attacks on Israelis (32 killed in the last 12 months, alongside 230 Palestinians killed by Israelis), and the U.S. has condemned this or taken issue with that, but for the most part, kept its distance. Israeli data indicate that the last eight years of settlement construction — read: the entrenchment of the occupation that Obama opposes — has matched, or exceeded, construction during the George W. Bush administration.
Many things stand in the way of a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace, not least Palestinian terrorism; domestic politics on both sides; a mutual refusal to recognize the just demands of long-time enemies; the hugely fraught questions of how to share Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees; and all those wars in Gaza, each of which was part of a cyclical and very lopsided war of attrition waged between the sides for decades.
But even if all that were somehow, through sheer force of will, resolved, Obama's stated goal of a two-state peace literally cannot be achieved if Israel not only refuses to leave Palestinian land but continues to build on it. Which is, and has always been, the goal of settlement — to force permanent Israeli control over the West Bank.
What could the Obama administration have done to convince its client state that compromise for the sake of peace was in its own best interests? Any number of things, ranging from the geopolitical to the financial. We'll never know if putting real pressure on Israel would have worked, because Obama — like every other president before him, with the single and short-lived example of George H.W. Bush — was never willing to push Israel past its comfort zone. I believe Obama to have been an excellent president for the American people, but the simple truth is that he has failed Israelis and Palestinians miserably.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has staked his entire career on settlement and was once secretly recorded telling a group of constituents: "I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily… They won't get in our way."
Do you think Obama wants a chance to tell Netanyahu he was right?