President Barack Obama has concluded that Israel and the Palestinians are unlikely to achieve peace unless they're under external pressure to make the requisite compromises. Believing that a two-state solution is in the best interests of both parties and that time is running out for such a solution, the President is stepping up the pressure on both sides. That was Obama's message at a White House meeting on July 13 with representatives of leading Jewish-American organizations, some of whom have lately complained that the President is unfairly pressuring Israel to make concessions on West Bank settlements, while going easy on the Palestinians.
According to various accounts of the White House meeting, Obama was gentle but firm in rejecting requests to refrain from publicly expressing his differences with Israel's leaders. When it was suggested by one participant in the meeting that the past eight years had demonstrated that the best chance for peace came when there was no daylight between the U.S. and Israeli positions, Obama pushed back, noting that the close ties between the Bush Administration and the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had in fact produced no significant progress toward peace.
"He said, 'The United States and Israel were very, very close for eight years, and it produced very little,' " Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman told the Los Angeles Times. In order to generate momentum toward a solution, Obama explained, the U.S. was pressuring Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states to make concessions.
Foxman was reportedly not convinced, and some others at the meeting expressed reservations afterward. Some, however, were reportedly more inclined to give Obama's approach a chance to work, and the President's approach was enthusiastically backed by J-Street, a new Jewish-American lobby group that ties support for Israel to the pursuit of peace. The presence of J-Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami at the White House meeting was one more change to digest for such stalwarts of the Jewish-American establishment as Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Following the President's Cairo outreach speech in June, Hoenlein had said publicly that "President Obama's strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what he really believes."
Whether or not Obama suffers any domestic political cost for putting pressure on Israel remains to be seen he won three-quarters of the Jewish vote in last year's election, and he has good reason to believe he can retain most of that support even if he prods Israel on issues like settlements. After all, the settlements are not fundamental to Israel's security, to which Obama constantly reiterates his rock-solid commitment.
But Obama may be understating the extent of pressure that will be required to bring about a two-state solution to the conflict. The settlement freeze that he has demanded of Israel, for example, is simply a confidence-building mechanism aimed at securing new gestures from Israel's Arab neighbors and helping restart negotiations. But Israel's government has pushed back hard, rejecting the principle of a total settlement freeze and insisting on completing some 2,500 housing units currently under construction, excluding East Jerusalem from the freeze, and making it conditional. And Arab governments are reluctant to be seen to offer new "rewards" such as allowing the opening of diplomatic facilities or overflight rights for commercial aircraft in return for Israel's simply complying with its obligations under the 2003 "road map" for peace. Each side seems to doubt the seriousness of the other, and each will cite the other's reluctance to move forward as a reason to hold back themselves.