(Glenn Kessler-WashingtonPost).The Israeli-Palestinian issue is often considered a central test of a president’s diplomatic skills. Former president George W. Bush was criticized for appearing to ignore the issue until the last months of his administration; he was reacting in part to the unsuccessful, last-gasp efforts of Bill Clinton to strike a deal. Obama decided to take on the challenge from day one, appointing a special envoy to prod the parties toward peace.
The administration further upped the ante by immediately pressing Israel to suspend settlement construction, believing such a gesture would help bolster Arab support for the peace process. Few people appear to remember this now, but the administration’s pressure tactics initially had the support of congressional Democrats, who ambushed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with “harsh and unequivocal statements” about settlements when he visited Washington.
But the pressure backfired. Israel eventually agreed to a partial, temporary freeze, but that was not good enough for emboldened Palestinians. Arab leaders balked at offering incentives to Israel. The administration ended up looking weak.
The president was critical of the administration’s performance in a 2010 interview with Time magazine. “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” he said.
Obama and Netanyahu had a major breakdown in relations in early 2010 over a perceived snub of Vice President Biden while he was touring Israel. Despite a lack of agreement on the parameters of talks, late in 2010 Obama then pressed the Israelis and Palestinians into talks that lasted barely two weeks. The administration again looked ineffectual.
The special envoy, former senator George Mitchell, recently resigned, leaving no replacement in sight. The administration is now fighting a rear guard action to prevent Palestinian officials from pressing forward with a plan to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.
In May, Obama again tried to jump start the peace process by saying that peace talks should begin with Israel’s 1967 borders, with swaps of land agreed by both sides. His remark created a firestorm and within days he sought to clarify his statement. In the annals of diplomacy, compared to how other presidents had discussed the issue, we thought his statement was a significant shift. One key reason is that he did not pair it with similar demands on the Palestinians or reiterate language about Israel being able to keep some settlements.
But the statement has also been misinterpreted, particularly in light of Obama’s clarification. In fact, we gave Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) four Pinocchios for saying he “announced his support of returning Israel and Palestine to the pre-war borders of 1967.”
That’s not true, though she keeps repeating it. However, one could argue that Obama is saying that 1967 has to be Israel’s starting negotiating position. (The administration has not been especially clear on this point.)
The difference is subtle, but Israel would prefer to give up land it seized in war in exchange for concessions from the Palestinians. But the Palestinians — who argue they have already given up much of the historic state of Palestine — want the talks to start on the 1967 lines, which could require Israel to make concessions in order to retain settlement blocks.
The statements by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty are more difficult to check. The Pawlenty campaign, for instance, cites a New York Times article about Obama “trying to box in Mr. Netanyahu” as evidence that Obama thinks “Israel is the problem.” Well, not really: the main point of the article was that Obama was giving up a full freeze on settlement expansion in response to Israeli counterpressure.
On the other hand, there are other news reports that feed into this notion. An JTA article on a March meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders quoted Obama as telling them to contact friends in Israel and asked them to “search their souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace. That sounds tough — though the article goes on to note that participants in the meeting disagreed vehemently over what the president actually said.
Indeed, the interpretation was in the ear of the listener. “The people who loved Obama probably still love him, the people who had big reservations about Obama probably have more reservations than they had before,” one Jewish organizational official told JTA. The same question of interpretation recently erupted over the administration’s stance on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, despite the diplomatic differences with the Israeli government, Obama has also greatly strengthened security and military ties with the Jewish state and defended Israel repeatedly at the United Nations.