A fair assessment of the Obama administration’s Midddle East policy must focus on the gap between goals and outcomes. But it must also consider the constraints under which it operated and the difficult realities that persist in the Middle East.
President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech was greeted with hope by Palestinians and with concern by the Israeli government. Both expected that the United States would take a more assertive and less pro-Israeli role in this process.
The administration’s pressure on Israel led to a temporary settlement freeze. The expectation that this would result in the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations proved futile. The Palestinian leadership was both too weak domestically, and too skeptical of the willingness of the right-wing Israeli government to make meaningful concessions to enter negotiations. The upshot was an accelerated Israeli settlement activity. Under the Obama/Clinton watch, Israeli West Bank population grew by 20% to 350,000.
The split between the P.L.O. and Hamas persists, and the level of dissatisfaction and frustration among Palestinians is on the rise again. The Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic equation in 2013 is fundamentally the same as the one that existed when Clinton took office. However, the situation on the ground makes the implementation of a two-state solution — a principle to which all sides seem to subscribe — much more difficult than it had been four years ago.
The gap between the professed goals of the administration and the outcomes of its policies is substantial. But the Obama/Clinton team faced an uphill battle. It had to deal with a hard line Israeli government. It had to lure a politically weak and irresolute Palestinian Authority to take high risks with low probability of success.
Moreover, other agenda items overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian process — Iran’s movement towards acquisition of nuclear weapons and the Arab Spring. Under these circumstances, it is doubtful that any administration could accomplish much more.
Secretary Clinton’s mediocre record in the Israeli-Palestinian track seems to vindicate the philosophy that has guided her husband’s Middle East policy. The United States can help the parties carry out the tough decisions it would take to accomplish peace. It cannot force them to make these decisions, nor can it make these decisions for them. The parties themselves must come to a realization that peace is their best option.
Without such a realization, even the United States — with all of its power and influence — cannot make it happen.