Applying the ‘Obama Doctrine’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Thomas Friedman’s interview with President Barack Obama on the Iranian nuclear issue evoked many responses, both positive and negative. In this interview, Friedman attempted to describe Obama’s policy toward pariah states such as Burma, Cuba and Iran as a comprehensive strategy that Friedman coined the Obama Doctrine (The New York Times, April 6, 2015).

The essence of this “doctrine” is that a combination of engagement and satisfaction of core strategic needs could serve American interests far better than sanctions and isolation.

America, in Obama’s opinion, with its overwhelming power, should have the confidence to take some calculated risks to create important new opportunities.

He believes that the United States is sufficiently powerful to test new diplomatic propositions without putting itself at risk. Although Obama hopes to see a change in Iran’s position in the forthcoming years, leading it to discontinue or slow its nuclear journey, America will be in a position to use its deterrence capabilities and military force if no such change develops.

According to this argument, a superpower with a defense budget of $600 billion should be able to ward off any threat emanating from a nation with $30b budget.

Time will tell whether the Obama Doctrine with regard to Iran (and pariah states in general) was successful or merely wishful thinking, but no one can deny the logic of this reasoning, even if doubts regarding the sincerity of Iranian intentions persist. Interestingly, the logic underlying this doctrine appears to be even more relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian case.

A self-confident Israel, with a defense budget amounting to NIS 57b., is a superpower in comparison to the approximately $1b. budget of the Palestinian Authority (the figures for Hamas are more problematic although there is obviously a wide gap here as well). According to the Obama Doctrine, such a gap allows Israel to take risks and offer some substantial concessions with regard to the occupied territories. Israel’s consistent argument that it does not have the luxury to test this proposition is disingenuous because its military might could easily undo whatever has been conceded.

Moreover, an agreement with the Palestinians would be supported by security guarantees provided by the United States, the European Community and perhaps other parties in the region, which would help deter Israel’s potential enemies.

Unfortunately, the chances that the newly composed rightwing government will adopt this line of reasoning are slim at best. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies, there is no partner on the Palestinian side. While he may be correct with regard to Hamas, placing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas firmly in the “no partner” square is a mistake. The problem, however, goes far beyond the policy of the current government, as most Israeli governments were reluctant to take initiative in the realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel was even reluctant to formally endorse, or even positively respond, to the Arab Peace Initiative, which might have served as an umbrella for advancing an agreement with the Palestinians.

The conclusion must be, therefore, that the chances for an independent Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough initiated by Israel are close to zero. This leaves the Obama administration as the only viable player that can ignite the process by offering a blueprint for a solution.

If Obama applies his doctrine to the Israeli-Palestinian case, we can expect the Obama Doctrine to be followed by the Obama Peace Plan or the Obama Peace Parameters.

In contrast to Clinton, who offered his vision in his final days in office in December 2000, Obama has sufficient time in office to promote his plan if he acts now. While the chances of this eventuality seem remote in view of the failure of the Kerry mission in 2014, coupled by Obama’s reluctance to further antagonize the Israeli government following the controversy over the Iran deal, perhaps Obama might be ready to take the chance of offering his own vision for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After all, the deal with Iran was similarly driven by the conviction that it was “the right thing to do.” Such a proposal would surely arouse heated political debate in Israel and may lead to internal changes.

But if the Israeli government involves itself in domestic American politics, there is no reason why the United States cannot do the same.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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