At a press conference in Seoul on April 25 2014, President Obama made the following main remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process:
The Middle East conflict has been going on for 80 years. We didn't anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six or nine-month negotiations.The Middle East conflict has been going on for 80 years. We didn't anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six or nine-month negotiations.
My duty as President is to handle a variety of global problems at the same time. I do not have the privilege to choose one problem and focus my attention on it alone.My duty as President is to handle a variety of global problems at the same time. I do not have the privilege to choose one problem and focus my attention on it alone.
C. It is still in the best interest of the United States, Israel and the Palestinians to resolve this combustible conflict. So far what we have seen is some movement on both sides to acknowledge that this is a long running crisis that needs to be solved.
D. We have not seen the existence of political will among the parties to make difficult decisions to bring about a settlement, and that is true on both sides.
E. Abu Mazen's unhelpful decision of opening a dialogue with Hamas is just one of a series of unproductive steps taken by both sides, which are not conducive to the effort to resolve the conflict.
F. I make no apologies for supporting Secretary of State Kerry’s tireless efforts, despite previous failures, to bring both sides together.
G. In each dialogue, parties often come to a point at which it is necessary for both sides to take a pause and examine the available alternatives.
H. The parties can cling to maximalist positions and offer all kinds of options for a settlement, but realistically, there is only one serious option: two states solution.
I. This requires both sides to make difficult political compromises. So far we have not seen such willingness on both sides to go this way.
We will continue to encourage the two sides to go this way. We will offer them alternatives. I will make no apologies for that. It is the right thing to do.We will continue to encourage the two sides to go this way. We will offer them alternatives. I will make no apologies for that. It is the right thing to do.
K. However, if I am asked whether I expect that indeed they will go this way in the next week, next month or even in the course of the next six months? My answer is no.
These staements of President Obama entail messages of a far-reaching meaning regarding the Middle East peace process. The fact that they were said with great restraint should not mislead us: apparently, a significant change is occurring regarding the President's positions regarding the Middle East peace process. The following are its highlights:
A. His recognition that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-standing one, with deep complexities and sensitivities. Therefore, one should not expect a breakthrough in the foreseeable future.
B. It is impossible to place the blame for the lack of settlement on one side. The responsibility for that lies on both sides.
C. The United States faces a variety of international strategic challenges that require its attention. The Middle East peace process is just one of them, not necessarily the most important one to the interests of the United States.
Both sides to the conflict are unwilling to make the difficult compromises necessary to reach an agreement. The US has limited ability to force the parties to change their positions.Both sides to the conflict are unwilling to make the difficult compromises necessary to reach an agreement. The US has limited ability to force the parties to change their positions.
E. At present and in view of the severe differences between the two sides, it would be best to pause the peace process.
These positions of President Obama are "light years" different from the positions he had reflected throughout his first term. At that time he perceived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as holding far-reaching strategic implications for the United States. Settling it, he believed, would promote a more comfortable reality for the United States in the international arena in general, and in the Islamic states in particular. Therefore, it should be a top priority of the United States. Moreover, the President believed it was possible to reach an agreed settlement that the parties will adopt, or will have to adopt, within a relatively short time.
The President's remarks are an explicit defiance to the positions of Secretary of State John Kerry. Pleasantries and compliments bestowed by the President upon Kerry should not be misleading. The President politely clarifies to the Secretary of State that his tendency to focus his attention on the Middle East peace process and his determination to pursue it despite its failures is no longer acceptable. Finally, the President stressed the need for a balanced approach with regard to the imposition of responsibility for the lack of agreement. This approach is clearly inconsistent with the Secretary of State's tendency to focus the responsibility for the failure of the peace process on Israel and especially on its settlement policy.
Professor Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel, Ben-Gurion University, and at The Institute for National Security Studies