White House recalibrates Middle East peace push

White House recalibrates Middle East peace push

Though he came into the presidency with great optimism of brokering Middle East peace, President Barack Obama’s time in office will not conclude with a two-state solution.

In a phone call last week with reporters last week ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Monday, administration official Rob Malley, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, said, “Barring a major shift, [the] parties are not going to be in a position to negotiate a final status agreement.”

But, said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, “the fact that we have the realistic assessment that we’re not looking at a very near-term conclusion of negotiations toward the two-state solution in no way diminishes our very fervent belief that a two-state solution is the one way to achieve the lasting peace, security and dignity that the Israeli and Palestinian people deserve.”

Rhodes added that settlement activity continues to complicate “both the trust that is necessary to move in the direction of peace and could very practically complicate the achievement of a viable Palestinian state.”

Given the new reality that at least a U.S.-brokered two-state solution will not be achievable until the next president takes office in 2017, and probably not until later, Malley said that the president wanted to ask Netanyahu what ideas can be put forward in the “absence of negotiations between the parties to help stabilize the situation on the ground and to signal — both Palestinians and Israelis” that they are still committed to the peace process, even if talks are not possible today.

And, indeed, Obama, standing alongside Netanyahu before they entered their meeting in the Oval Office, said, “I will also discuss with the prime minister his thoughts on how we can lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians, how we can get back on a path toward peace and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process, even as we make sure that Israel is able to secure itself.”

Netanyahu, after conveying his condolences to the president regarding the loss of American lives in an attack in Jordan, said, “Equally, I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace. We’ll never give up the hope for peace. And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

The prime minister added that no one should doubt “Israel’s determination to defend itself against terror and destruction, and neither should anyone doubt Israel’s willingness to make peace with any of its neighbors that genuinely want to achieve peace with us.”

Though the exchange of comments was by all accounts pleasant, much focus had been placed on the perceived dislike the two world leaders have for each other. The perception from within the Obama administration is that Netanyahu has made Israel a wedge issue. Tensions were not helped when it emerged recently that Ran Baratz, tapped by Netanyahu to head Israel’s National Information Directorate, had called Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress “modern anti-Semitism.” Baratz reportedly in the past mocked Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on social media.

Baratz later apologized to Netanyahu for his comments.

Ahead of Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, Matt Nosanchuk, associate director of public engagement in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement — informally known as the White House Jewish liaison — reiterated the message his colleagues put forward when pressed by Joshua Runyan, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Chronicle, during an interview on the press stage at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on Sunday evening.

“We fervently and strongly support a two-state solution,” said Nosanchuk.

“We believe it’s the best — the only means to ensure Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state and we continue to believe that,” said Nosanchuk. “But given the reality of the situation, now we don’t necessarily foresee it as happening in the immediate term, that’s not to say that we don’t still support it.”

He added that the reaction to the White House press briefing was “over-cranked, to some extent.”

It is not the current administration’s point of view that it’s giving up on the peace process, but rather acknowledging that there is not enough time left in this presidency to go beyond reassessing the status of Middle East peace.

Said Nosanchuk: “We continue to strongly support a two-state solution and encourage both parties to take positive steps, confidence building steps in the coming months with the aim of resuming direct negotiations in the near future.”

Melissa Apter is the political writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at mapter@midatlanticmedia.com.