The Obama administration has stumbled into a nasty spat with Israel that is based on incompatible views of how best to advance prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For President Barack Obama, peace is best achieved through patiently engaging adversaries, assuring them that their dignity will be respected, educating them on how best to recognize and advance mutual interests, and promoting negotiations to encourage compromise on every issue. For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has seen several peace negotiations collapse with disastrous consequences, peace must be built on the bedrock of security in careful negotiations with partners who can and will deliver on their commitments.
Netanyahu’s government knows that there is no Palestinian leader who now is willing and able to deliver peace, while the Obama administration glosses over this inconvenient truth. Even if President Mahmoud Abbas, who refuses to meet Israelis in direct talks, could somehow reach an acceptable final status agreement with Israel, he can not guarantee that it will end the conflict. The Palestinian Islamist extremist Hamas movement is the six hundred pound gorilla that can explode any peace agreement he signs with another round of rocket terrorism. Until Hamas, which controls Gaza, is defeated and discredited, there can be no genuine peace.
Palestinian terrorist attacks, not Israeli settlements, are the chief barriers to peace. Many Israeli settlements are located in areas that eventually could be folded into Israel in exchange for equal amounts of Israeli territory, if and when borders are agreed upon in a final settlement. Yet when the Obama Administration sought to revive the comatose peace process, which has been on American-supplied life support since the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, it made a settlement freeze the centerpiece of its strategy. It was extremely unwise for the Obama administration to push for a settlement freeze that no Israeli government could agree to in the absence of rapid movement for a permanent peace settlement that would include ironclad provisions that would ensure Israel’s security against terrorist attacks.
This focus on the settlements guaranteed friction with Israel’s center-right government and hardened the Palestinian negotiating position, because President Abbas could not be seen as less opposed to settlements than the United States. Despite the fact that Palestinians had negotiated for many years without gaining such a settlement freeze, Abbas now has made it a condition for resuming talks. There is likely to be little progress on negotiations in the future because the Palestinians will sit back and let Washington extract concessions from Jerusalem, without feeling any need to reciprocate with concessions of their own.
Netanyahu’s government stands on firm ground, knowing that Israelis are not willing to surrender territory unless they can be assured that it will not be transformed into a base for future terrorism against them, as Gaza was transformed by Hamas after Israel’s 2005 pullout. Given this reality, it was unwise and counterproductive to pick a fight with a close ally on an issue that will do little to advance peace.
As John Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Obama is “our first post-American President.” His worldview will lead to continued tensions with Israel in the future.
But Israel is not the only ally that has felt let down by the Obama Administration. The administration’s proclivity for putting a higher priority on engaging adversaries than in protecting the security of allies has disappointed Poland, the Czech Republic, and other allies, as Robert Kagan has noted. And there are sure to be even greater strains between the Obama Administration and our allies in the future.