Obama’s order of priorities

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu visited the White House last week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits later this week. Where does the Palestinian issue stand with President Obama in the interim? What has he learned from Netanyahu and what can he ask of Abbas?

The Obama administration’s overall Middle East policy is still clearly in formation. We are reliably informed that even in the president’s upcoming June 4 speech in Cairo he will not yet be ready to lay out detailed policy ideas for an integrated approach to the region’s conflicts. One admirable characteristic of his thinking that he has already clearly displayed is a readiness to hear all points of view before making up his mind.

Judging by their public comments after their meeting, Obama and Netanyahu have relatively little interest at this juncture in highlighting disagreements over the nature of a Palestinian-Israeli final status deal. Even if Netanyahu cannot bring himself to mouth the words "two-state solution" because of his own ideological inclinations as well as coalition considerations, his thoughts on final status are apparently close enough to those of the Israeli mainstream–and a genuine final status agreement far enough away–to render this a moot point with Obama.

Rather, the obvious and most urgent area of disagreement between the two is settlements: a settlement freeze, including in and around Jerusalem, and the removal of outposts. Indeed, Washington’s complaint is not just with Netanyahu but also with Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who has been dragging his feet on the removal of outposts for years. Obama made this plain in the public remarks he made alongside Netanyahu: "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clarified: "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth–any kind of settlement activity. That is what the president has called for."

Judging by what has happened since then, Netanyahu and Barak did not get the message. Barak talked tough with the settlers about the outposts but sufficed with sending the IDF to dismantle the tiny hilltop outpost of "Maoz Esther" that had already been removed twice. As in the past, the settlers rebuilt it immediately. He also intends to "negotiate" with five other outposts. The impression this leaves is pathetic.

As for Netanyahu, he has forcefully declared that Jerusalem would never again be divided and that "[East] Jerusalem is not a settlement and we’ll continue to build there." His minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, declared that settlement expansion would continue and admonished the Obama team that they didn’t really understand the Middle East. The heads of two additional coalition parties spoke out against removing outposts and freezing settlement construction. The Netanyahu coalition might just as well have shown the new American president a red flag.

Yet Obama’s task with Abbas will be no easier. The Palestinian leader arrives in Washington at a time when leaders of his own party, Fateh, are at loggerheads over the reconstituted PA government of PM Salam Fayyad and Abbas’ lamentable attempt to convene the first Fatah congress in more than 20 years. Abbas cannot "deliver" Gaza and has no realistic plan for reintegrating Hamas into a unity government that could support a new peace process with Israel, which he in any case opposes until there is progress on the settlements issue.

Obama’s efforts thus confront a significant dissymmetry. His problems with Israel primarily concern interim confidence-building issues like the settlements. There, he needs to show the Arab world he can produce genuine progress if he plans to ask for Arab confidence-building gestures toward Israel, such as low-level relations, as a means of priming the peace process and inducing cooperation regarding Iran. With the Palestinians, on the other hand, Obama has fewer interim issues: thanks to American and European help, the Palestinians’ security performance in the West Bank has improved remarkably in recent months, thereby at least partially fulfilling the PLO’s roadmap phase I obligations. But with the Palestinians, Obama currently has no hope of creating favorable conditions for a realistic two-state final status agreement.

For the time being, the Obama administration remains enthusiastic about generating a dynamic Israeli-Palestinian process. In contrast, it has put a Syrian-Israeli process on the back burner until Damascus begins to adhere to US demands regarding its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon. But as Obama learns just how frustrating the Israelis and Palestinians can be and–against the backdrop of Washington’s many heavier tasks further to the east–weighs the wages of committing himself to another potentially abortive Israeli-Palestinian peace process, this order of priorities could change.