Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, April 22, 2011

Confusion in the Obama administration

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article reporting that there was disagreement within the upper ranks of the Obama administration about its Middle East policy regarding Israel/Palestine. It was reported that both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton favored the former making a presidential speech to the nation on the Middle East that would address policy issues raised by both the Arab Spring revolutions and the stagnant peace process. J Street, the liberal pro-Israel pro-peace lobby, is lobbying Obama and Clinton to publicly set out their own terms for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.  Senior National Security Council advisor for the Middle East Dennis Ross, who was the lead Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, is opposed to Obama making such a speech. Ross opposes such a speech because he fears that it will lead to a confrontation with Israel and is opposed to any American-Israeli confrontation. The New York Times's Israeli equivalent, Ha'Aretz, also ran an article on the subject. I agree with Ross, but for reasons that are slightly--but very significantly different.

Like Ross I believe that the situation at present is not ripe for peace. Neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah is willing to take the steps and make the sacrifices that would be necessary for concluding a peace agreement. This was demonstrated in 2010 when the PA refused to take advantage of the Israeli settlement construction freeze to return to negotiations. It was also demonstrated by PM Netanyahu's failure to renew the freeze and his manipulating of settlement construction starts as to render the freeze largely meaningless. Should Washington, at a time when it is busy fighting three wars in the region, want peace more than the parties to the conflict? 

I do not fear an American conflict with Jerusalem--I just don't want it wasted. Obama is in no position to take advantage of a confrontation. His domestic political position is too tenuous. He should wait either until he is safely reelected or until the PA gives him more leverage by declaring independence at the United Nations in September.  

Let's review the record of presidents who made major peace efforts in the Middle East. Nixon supported Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the winter and spring of 1974 leading to two Arab-Israeli separation of forces agreements. Nixon was forced to resign that August to avoid impeachment. Gerald Ford supported Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in 1975 between Egypt and Israel that resulted in the Sinai II separation of forces agreement. Ford lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter a year later. Carter spent much of his first two years in office negotiating a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. He remained a single term president. Reagan did not do any peacemaking during his first term in office and was reelected by a landslide. George H.W. Bush convened the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 that eventually led to the Oslo process. Like Carter he remained a one-term president. Bill Clinton used the Oslo accords signing on the White House lawn as a photo op. But he didn't engage in heavy-duty peacemaking during his first term. He was easily reelected. He did make a serious effort at Camp David in July 2000 and Vice President Al Gore narrowly lost the election to George W. Bush in November 2000 (but won more popular votes). Bush didn't engage in serious peacemaking in his first term (or in his second) and was reelected.

The clear empirical law is that chances of being elected or reelected are inversely proportional to one's efforts to secure Middle East peace. While many other factors come into presidential elections including the economy, Middle East peacemaking does play a role. If the president invests serious efforts and energy and fails, he appears incompetent. If he succeeds, it is because he pressured Israel. For this he is punished by conservative single issue Jewish voters. Most Jewish voters are not single issue pro-Israel voters and will vote based on party identification. About two-thirds of Jewish voters are Democrats or vote Democratic. Obama risks losing the votes of independent voters who are pro-Israel, both Jews and non-Jews. Why take the risk now when the chance of success is very low?

Here is a post for Gershom Gorenberg backing up my analysis of Jewish voting patterns.


  1. I like your analysis Tom. Without having anywhere near the expertise you have in the history of Israel-PA relations, I would be hesitant though to call the relation between presidential involvement in the peace process and their fate in subsequent elections an "empirical law." It seems the implication by calling it a law is that it is the primary determinant in the outcome of elections, and as you say, there are a myriad of other factors involved...not least of all the domestic economy. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting your point, though?

    Just out of curiosity the opening of your piece, you write that, "It was reported that both President Obama and Secretary of State Obama favored the former making a presidential speech to the nation on the Middle East." Should it read Sec of State Clinton, or is this a little jab at Hillary? Funny either way.

  2. Editor's Correction:

    An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed Obama as sec'y of state. He is, of course, only the president and Hillary Clinton is sec'y of state.