Obama’s Palestine policy: Slogans and throwaway phrases

The Obama administration is the first in the post-1967 era to leave the stage devoid of any diplomatic framework.

Netanyahu has spent a political lifetime working to keep the West Bank under effective Israeli control and to reducing the power of Palestinians over it, writes Aronson [Reuters]

In the waning months of the Obama administration, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has much reason to celebrate. Like his neighbour Bashar al-Assad, Netanyahu will have outlasted Obama’s eight-year term – and the president’s attempt to force a dramatic change in Israel’s settlement and occupation policies.

Indeed, for eight long years, hardly a day has passed without some US official decrying Israel’s settlement policy.

In her first months as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton set down a serious and detailed marker, famously declaring: “With respect to settlements, the president … wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease.”

Critical, public declarations such as these initially appeared to promise a surprising, effective American determination to do the right thing. Comments in this spirit have continued to flow in a torrent for eight long years … but to no practical effect.

Lots of talk, no action

Just this week, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council that “steps aimed at advancing the Israeli settlement project … are fundamentally incompatible with the two-state solution and raise legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions”.

Simply waiting for the parties to see the light and lamenting their failure to do so is not a policy. Analysing the perils of Israel's current annexationist course is not the same thing as championing an effective diplomatic effort to address them.


During Obama’s tenure the settler population, the clearest indicator of Israel’s intentions and the effectiveness of the US effort to confront it,  has increased by about 25 percent to more than half a million. Not a day goes by without continuing expansion of settlements, which undermines Palestinian prospects to end Israeli occupation, and to remain a viable national and political community.

It is not only that Obama has failed miserably to achieve the goal set for his administration. By lacking the courage of his conviction that the occupation must end and a Palestinian state be established, Obama’s ritual protests at continuing settlement and land confiscation have become totally divorced from effective US policy and diplomacy.

As a consequence, Washington’s views on Israeli settlements have long since failed to be taken seriously among Israeli policymakers, primarily because, despite the rhetoric, Washington has shown itself demonstrably unwilling to fight for them.

During Obama’s tenure, Israel has almost totally discounted the US critique, spearheaded by Obama’s Cairo declaration of “the illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”.

Instead, Israel has made a habit of crossing Obama’s settlement red lines – without suffering anything more uncomfortable than a meaningless and counterproductive tongue-lashing from Washington. The result is that the Obama administration now confesses that it is “out of ideas” on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – except for plaintive and hapless critiques of policies it does not have the will, energy, or conviction to confront.

Doing nothing is not a policy

The closing months of outgoing US presidents have often been the focus of hopes and fears that the lame duck leader will – at long last – adopt policies in keeping with their view that the national security of the US requires a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and more broadly between Israel and the Arabs.

In Obama’s case, there are waning hopes that at long last, Washington will “lead from behind” and not stand in the way of a UN Security Council resolution opposing settlements, or that it will enable the tabling of a French resolution establishing a framework for international diplomacy.

OPINION: Palestine is still key to stability in the Middle East

And again in the president’s case, there is scant evidence of such an uncertain prospect. Secretary of State John Kerry has energetically presided over the administration’s slow-motion policy debacle, whose main – if unintended – achievement has been to foster the terrible impression that the situation is hopeless, and that no equitable diplomatic solution is possible.

Under Obama’s watch, annexationist supporters of Greater Israel, and Palestinians supporting a “one-state solution” different from the one Israel has already created, are stronger than ever.


To be fair, Obama is only the latest US administration to fail to solve the conflict. But it is the first in the post-1967 era to leave the stage devoid of any diplomatic framework, no matter how inadequate or problematic.

After eight years of effort, Kerry acknowledged in a speech in December that “the level of distrust between [Netanyahu and Abbas] has never been greater”.

While Obama has rejected a policy of taking the lead in establishing the outlines of a workable diplomatic framework for ending occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, the secretary of state takes refuge in maudlin pronouncements – such as those in his December speech – about the perils of the demise of the embattled Palestinian Authority or the heavy costs to Israel of continuing occupation.

“I’m just asking questions,” Kerry explained. He warned that “there are valid questions as to how long the PA will survive if the current situation continues. Mark my words … The chances that it would collapse increase over time every day.”

Simply waiting for the parties to see the light, and lamenting their failure to do so, is not a policy. Analysing the perils of Israel’s current annexationist course is not the same thing as championing an effective diplomatic effort to address them.

OPINION: Let’s admit the PA is on the chopping block

It appears that having despaired of its ability to do the right thing, the Obama administration is now content to merely warn of the perils of the status quo. But does this effort represent anything more than what Kerry himself – in reference to Netanyahu’s declared support of two states – derided as “a slogan or throwaway phase”?

None of the concerns highlighted by US officials should be news to anyone with even a minimal familiarity with the issues. Netanyahu has spent a political lifetime working to keep the West Bank under effective Israeli control and to reducing the power of Palestinians over it.

Unlike Obama, Netanyahu has not been deflected from his course, nor is he content with an occupation policy defined by empty words.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.