In a conference call with reporters last week, aides to President Barack Obama set fairly low expectations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Monday. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it appears that much was accomplished — from the prime minister’s declaration that Israel would always be committed to peace with the Palestinians to the president’s declaration that Israeli security would always be paramount in American calculations in the Middle East.
But if anybody was hoping for a revolutionary rapprochement between two world leaders whose relationship has been described in press reports as caustic, that clearly didn’t happen. Instead, the most important thing to come out of Netanyahu’s first visit to the United States since his vocal opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal that sailed through Congress without a real legislative fight is that the White House has made a crucial reassessment of how it will view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Thus, as the seventh year of the Obama presidency ends, we now know that there will be no more attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by this administration.
That announced position by the White House is a sober acknowledgement of reality. Whether driven by a lack of desire on the part of Netanyahu and/or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or either’s inability to sell crucial concessions to their own constituencies, peace is just not possible between Israel and the Palestinians in the near term. Having seen the negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry collapse in 2014, Obama does not appear tempted to use the elusive goal of an Israeli- Palestinian agreement to burnish his legacy.
Even so, the violence that has spiraled out from the Temple Mount since September is the latest reminder that this piece of land in the Middle East cannot be ignored for long. And Obama seems to realize that. Thus, even as the administration announced its hands-off approach, it made clear that Washington has no intention of ignoring the bloodshed and demanded that Palestinian incitement and terrorism must stop. And, the announcement made clear that a two-state solution remained an administration objective.
What is lacking, however, is a clear way forward. Acknowledging that reality is perhaps the greatest American foreign policy achievement in more than two decades, because it recognizes that peace cannot be imposed from the outside. Instead, any plan for peace must be developed through direct and focused efforts by the parties. In laying out a newly defined objective for the United States in the resolution process, the president seems to want to give space to Palestinians and Israelis to create their own peace rather than trying to impose one by fiat. Let’s see how that works out.