Donald Trump’s announcement, Wednesday, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel represents yet another example of the current occupant of the White House’s ability to throw caution to the wind, disrupt established norms and blunder, myopically, into some of the world’s most complex issues. But while this president’s remarkable in his rashness, he is not so different from his predecessors. Trump didn’t create the problem and, importantly, his immediate forerunner bares significant responsibility for the current state of crisis.
In the dying days of 2016, as the Obama presidency was drawing to an end, the US delegation to the UN Security Council took the unusual step of abstaining on resolution that condemned Israel for its ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank. Knowledge of this move caused consternation in Israel and, as we have since learned, inspired a frantic lobbying campaign by the incoming Trump transition that secure a veto from the Russian delegation.
But Obama’s absence of a veto was not heroic last gesture in solidarity with the Palestinians however. Rather it is perhaps better to understand it as a last the final round in a spat between the president and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that had simmered for nearly the full eight years of the former’s term in office.
On the surface this US-Israeli quarrel might appear to partly a product of leadership style and political instincts – between the cerebral centre-left Obama and the bloviating right-wing Netanyahu – but ultimately rooted in a genuine difference of opinion between a President and Prime Minister on the indisputably serious matter of how to achieve stability in a volatile region.
According to such a reading, Netanyahu represents the Israeli nationalist who saw the world in black and white and believed in stability through force, while Obama was the calm outsider with a capable of seeing more nuance and being more even-handed. In short, this view would have Netanyahu as the hawk, advocating perpetual occupation in Palestine (not to mention and pre-emptive attacks Iran) while Obama pursued peace through a two-state solution in Palestine and diplomacy even with strategic rivals.
This reading is seductive, but that is not the same as it being true. Its appeal is partly rooted in the fact that Obama’s charisma and level-headedness stands in such obvious contrast to a chaotic gloomy world dominated by Trump. But in reality, Obama administration policy on Palestine was far from perfect. Instead, Obama’s legacy on this issue is severely tarnished by numerous failures to act in the interests of peace and/or long term stability and – perhaps worse – a perpetual lack of both vision and courage.
It had started promisingly when Obama appointed Senator George Mitchell, a veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process, as his special envoy to the region and pushed Israel hard into a ten-month partial freeze settlement construction. These efforts led to a series of proxy talks followed by direct negotiations, though they fizzled out in December of 2010.
The administration tried again after Obama was re-elected in 2012. John Kerry was confirmed as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and he engaged in an energetic shuttle diplomacy campaign, enthusiastically meeting leaders throughout the region and frequently talking up prospects for peace. Kerry was rewarded in mid-2013 with another – this time unannounced – freeze on settlement construction and another round of talks. These too ended in failure and in Kerry’s words it was “reality check time” with administration officials following up that “there are limits to the amount of time and effort the U.S. can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps”.
But it wasn’t the Obama administration’s failure to achieve serious progress through the tired pattern of negotiations and stagnation that damns its efforts and makes it partly culpable for the current state of play. Rather it was the administration’s actions in the intervening periods to shore up the status quo that is to blame for leading us to where we are now.
After all, it was the same president that dithered over what role to play during the unprecedented popular uprisings in the Middle East, starting in December 2010, before eventually restoring full American support for a string of dictators and strongmen, articulated US support for peace and Palestinian self-determination while repeatedly blocking its advance wherever possible.
Indeed, throughout the period the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership had embarked on their own efforts to ‘shake up the status quo’ by circumventing traditional negotiations to seek recognition both through bilateral negotiations with other governments and in international forums.
The Palestinian effort culminated in a UN General Assembly vote that recognised Palestine as a non-Member observer state in November 2012 (giving it parity with the Holy See), but it is telling that the Palestinians were pressured out of seeking full UN membership – as PA President Mahmoud Abbas has announced his intention to do, a year earlier – and were denied approval by the UN Security Council due to lobbying by the US on non-permanent members and the threat of its veto power. Obama’s then UN Ambassador, Susan Rice, had even vetoed an earlier draft-resolution designed to condemn Israeli settlement construction in January 2011 that had been carefully worded by its Lebanese sponsors (with European assistance) to directly reflect US language on the issue.
The Obama administration could have uses any of these opportunities to disrupt the status quo and inject a spark life into the stagnant negotiations, but it didn’t just fail to do so it actively resisted moves towards progressive change. In short, it was Obama’s two terms shamelessness that laid the groundwork for Trump’s recent shameful behaviour.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.