NEW YORK — Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Israel. Just two months after he took office, Benjamin Netanyahu assumed the Israeli prime ministership, which initiated an irrefutable ideological misalignment that emerged between the two and never quite receded.
There was Obama, the Democratic American president of the Rooseveltian variety, and there was Netanyahu, the Republican-esque Likud Israeli prime minister of the Churchillian mentality. And from that paradigm arose seven years of disputes and, on numerous occasions, highly public clashes.
There was, of course, the battle over how to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But the one issue that has had the most lasting resonance for the president — that which he publicly emphasized at the very beginning of his presidency and now toward the very end — is that of settlements.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Obama devoted a mere 37 words to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and used that rhetorical real estate to highlight what he sees as the failures of both parties to reach an accord.
“Surely Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel,” he said here Tuesday, in his final address before the world body. “But Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land. We all have to do better.”
Compare that with what he said in his first address at this forum in 2009: “We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
Obama’s casting settlements as “illegitimate” was first stated four months earlier in his landmark Cairo speech. The designation broke new ground, according to veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, who told The Times of Israel last year that, “Since the Reagan administration, the US made a policy that settlements were a political issue and not a legal issue.”
The reason being that denouncing settlements by invoking international law would undercut the US negotiating position of seeking to keep the major blocs in place in exchange for mutually agreed upon land swaps within Israel proper for a future Palestinian state.
Ross also described how he explained to Obama the implications of his language after his address to the Muslim world, and that he abstained from using that term from then on — except in that UN speech, when then deputy national security adviser (now chief of staff) Dennis McDonough insisted the president couldn’t seem like he was retreating.
Well, Obama didn’t call settlements “illegitimate” on Tuesday. Forget all else that has happened between him and Netanyahu over the last eight years and the overtures both leaders are making to mend fences, it would be a remarkably puzzling sentiment to have expressed after striking a new military aid deal that guarantees Israel $38 billion over the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, he did still raise the issue when addressing reporters Wednesday before his private meeting with the Israeli premier. “We do have concerns around settlement activity,” he said. “And our hope is that we can continue to be an effective partner with Israel in finding a path to peace.”
There was no other explicit mention about any of the issues in which there is a difference between them, including the Iran deal. But during the two opportunities he had to discuss the Jewish state this week, Obama was compelled to make this same point each time: that settlements are an impediment to peace.
Right from the start of his presidential tenure, Obama demanded Netanyahu halt building in areas beyond the Green Line. After a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2009, a month before the Cairo speech, he told reporters, “In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements, to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts… to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce.”
Come November 2009, Netanyahu begrudgingly acquiesced to Obama and declared a 10-month moratorium in the West Bank. The Palestinians, however, rejected the freeze, articulating that the reason was that it did not include East Jerusalem. Abbas famously refused to talk with the Israelis during that period until the 10th month, and then wanted to extend the freeze to keep those talks going.
Before any of that came about, however, Obama had already retracted his demand — and seemed to suggest that his doing so could be a tactical mistake.
“Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward,” he told reporters before another tête-à-tête that September with Abbas and Netanyahu, when asked about his previous demand. “It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that is necessary to achieve our goals.”
Despite the failure of those early attempts, the president assigned his second term secretary of state John Kerry to rigorously pursue a deal. When that round of negotiations failed, in 2014, he continued to criticize settlement expansion as damaging the prospect of a viable agreement — increasing the Jewish presence in areas that are to one day constitute a Palestinian state.
On Wednesday, he implored the Israeli prime minister to “keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel, at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.”
Much has changed regarding Obama’s view toward foreign policy over the last eight years; he no longer believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core of Middle East volatility or the most pressing crisis in the region. But there’s one view that hasn’t changed: For Netanyahu to “keep alive” the possibility of a two-state solution, he must reverse the settlement project. Now.