A slow start

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not high on President Barack Obama’s list of priorities. Two months into his term, Obama has paid only lip service to the issue, delegating it to lower officials. Since Israel is in a waiting period for its new government, Obama’s behavior appears reasonable. The president did not bother engaging outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, deferring any policy decisions until after the new Netanyahu government is sworn in.

Obama’s election raised concerns in Israel and among its American supporters that the new president would end the honeymoon Israel enjoyed under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Fixing America’s image and relations with the Arab world is a key policy goal for Obama, and keeping a distance from Israel is a well-checked way to gain popularity in the Arab "street". Bush was criticized for being too close to Israel and too lazy on the peace process. Changing that course could be a reasonable point of departure for the "change" leader.

So far, while reaching out to Arab and Muslim public opinion and breaking the Bush taboos against engaging Tehran and Damascus, Obama has been careful not to rock the boat vis-a-vis Israel. No new policy has been offered for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama did not take sides in the February 10 Israeli election or in the ensuing coalition-forming process. Washington offered no support for left-leaning candidates and parties against the right wing but rather took a wait-and-see approach.

Obama’s most visible decision thus far is the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Here Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to appoint an envoy and signaled a departure from Bush’s policies. Mitchell’s record as a successful peace broker in Northern Ireland and as chairman of the Sharm al-Sheikh fact-finding commission in the final days of the Clinton presidency, as well as his Lebanese family origins, were all interpreted as signs of a new, activist approach to peacemaking. Until now, however, Mitchell has been in a learning mode, offering no clue to his ideas or to his real authority. It is too early to tell whether Mitchell’s appointment indicates a full gear effort to resolve the conflict or is merely a convenient tool for keeping the issue away from the president’s table.

The other key person on Obama’s team, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appeared on the scene as a reminder of her husband’s more activist approach to the Arab-Israel conflict. But Clinton too shows no urgency in dealing with the issue. She visited the region only after an Asia trip and, like Mitchell, stopped in Cairo before Jerusalem–a deliberate signal of "even-handedness" between Arabs and Israelis.

Beyond diplomatic gestures, however, Obama and Clinton have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, Bush and Condoleezza Rice, on most decisions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Obama decided to honor the military aid commitment made by Bush to Israel. He decided to stay away from the "Durban 2" conference because of the anti-Israel language in its draft decisions. And most importantly, while pledging American aid for the reconstruction of Gaza, Clinton made clear that all funds must go through the Palestinian Authority rather than directly to Hamas. Moreover, she insisted upon the Quartet demands from Hamas–recognition of Israel and of past agreements and rejection of terror–as preconditions for dialogue.

Where the Obama policy appears to differ from Israel’s is on matters of human rights and settlements, which the Bush administration had mostly overlooked, giving Israel a free hand in the West Bank and Gaza. Clinton said that Israel should implement its roadmap commitments, i.e., remove illegal outposts and freeze settlement construction, and publicly criticized a plan for house demolitions in East Jerusalem. Her visit prompted Israel to remove some of the restrictions over the entry of food supplies to Gaza, following complaints from Senator John Kerry, who had visited Gaza.

A right-wing government in Israel will probably have a hard time with the Obama team if it intends to expand settlements while offering no "political horizon" to the Palestinians. And Netanyahu will have to deliver on his "economic peace" plan, which includes some easing of restrictions on movement in the West Bank.

In her public remarks, Clinton committed the United States to the goal of an "independent, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza" as well as to Israel’s security. But she did not mention the Annapolis process of Bush and Rice, perhaps because it ended in failure. This indicates that the new team in Washington is open to new ideas and diplomatic frameworks as long as they follow the general direction of the two-state solution. One such framework that Clinton has already referred to is the Arab peace initiative, which ties a Palestinian deal into a more comprehensive Arab-Israel rapprochement.

Obama’s slow start, his refraining from rushing to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on old formulas and his preference for a regional approach give Netanyahu a window of opportunity to work with the new team in Washington, despite the latter’s refusal to adopt the idea of a Palestinian state and his reliance on a right-wing coalition. But he will have to deliver on improving the situation of the Palestinians and avoid unnecessary provocations in the settlements or East Jerusalem.