Obama’s exit calculus on the peace process

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as leaders gathered to deliver a joint statement on Middle East Peace talks in the East Room of the White House in Washington September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed
Editor's note:

One issue that has traditionally shared bipartisan support is how the United States should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, write Sarah Yerkes and Ariella Platcha. However, this year both parties have shifted their positions farther from the center and from past Democratic and Republican platforms. How will that affect Obama’s strategy? This post originally appeared on the Israel Policy Forum’s blog, Matzav.

As the Republican and Democratic parties convene in Cleveland and Philadelphia, we expect to see numerous signs of the deepening polarization that has dominated this campaign season. One issue that has traditionally shared bipartisan support is how the United States should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, this year both parties have shifted their positions farther from the center and from past Democratic and Republican platforms. This swing impacts whether the Obama administration, which has devoted significant time and resources to the negotiations, will issue a parting statement on the conflict.

In Cleveland last week the Republican party adopted a platform entirely dropping the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that puts the party further to the right than either AIPAC or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The platform states, “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel.” This language, combined with Republican nominee Donald Trump’s apparent disinterest in the conflict, makes it unlikely a Trump administration would prioritize Israeli-Palestinian issues or make any serious attempt at negotiations.

Conversely, this year’s Democratic Party platform reaffirmed the United States government’s long-standing commitment to seeking a two-state solution in the region. But the party took a notably progressive turn, highlighting both the importance of Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and Palestinian freedom “to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.” The contentious fight over the Democratic Party language, combined with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s (and her potential First Gentleman’s) passion for this issue reveals an intent by a future Clinton administration to reinvigorate negotiations.

As President Obama and Secretary Kerry consider their final months in office, one item on the agenda is whether to push a last-ditch effort on the issue—either by releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters based on the outcome of the failed 2013-14 negotiations or by supporting one of the international initiatives such as the French Initiative, the Quartet Report, or the regional Arab Peace Initiative, now spearheaded by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Likely to drive the administration’s calculus are the Democratic and Republican nominees and their political motives on the U.S. led peace process. The time to watch for a potential move, therefore, is between November and January. Given the administration’s support for its own party’s nominee, it is in Obama’s interest to keep the peace process on life support—but without resuscitating it—through January. Publicly, but somewhat unenthusiastically, supporting the various international initiatives and allowing other states and international organizations to sit in the driver’s seat sets a future Democratic administration up with the best chance of success.

Lessons from getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the table over the years include the wisdom to refrain from yelling about past progress in negotiations. Publicly revealing how far Netanyahu and Abbas were willing to go in 2014 would only harm the next administration’s efforts at resuming negotiations. Keeping the “Kerry Framework” in the administration’s pocket allows a Clinton administration to take ownership of the peace process should she be elected.

Alternatively, if Trump is elected, the Obama administration would have nothing to lose in revealing the fruits of its efforts in 2013-14. The administration would have little concern for derailing a possible Trump attempt (which is not likely to take place in any event) and could determine that releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters would shed a positive light on the administration’s legacy. Furthermore, should the Republican Party win the White House, neither Obama nor Kerry is likely to care about the damage that releasing such a document might do to either Netanyahu or Abbas.

The party conventions have solidified the deep divides—both between and within the parties—regarding the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this campaign season. This divide, combined with a renewed international focus on the conflict, virtually guarantees that the administration will keep the conflict on the back burner before November. The election, therefore, will not only determine our next president but also the fate of the “Obama/Kerry Parameters”.

Note: Ariella Plachta, an intern with the Center for Middle East Policy, contributed to this post.