WASHINGTON — In his final press conference as president, Barack Obama issued a stern warning to Israelis and Palestinians alike that the chances for a two-state solution could soon fade if serious changes are not made by both parties.
And with President-elect Donald Trump set to take office in two days, he also directed remarks at positions he’s vowed to enact, referring to the region’s “explosive” volatility and counseling caution before making any rash policy shifts — an apparent reference to Trump’s controversial plan to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Defending his decision to abstain on a UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, the president said he intended to send “a wake-up call” that the opportunity to reach a two-state outcome “may be passing.”
The goal of advancing the resolution, Obama stated on Wednesday, was “to simply say that the settlements, the growth of the settlements, are creating a reality on the ground that increasingly will make a two-state solution impossible.”
Without the two sides finding a way to disentangle themselves, Obama insisted Israel’s Jewish and democratic character is at risk and the situation for Palestinians will remain unbearable.
“I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy, because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation,” he said.
“Functionally, you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised and operate as second-class occupants, or residents. You can’t even call them citizens necessarily.”
Citing a “rightward drift” in Israeli politics in recent years and the “weakening” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “ability to move and take risks on behalf of peace,” Obama said he wanted to make a major statement delineating the long-term dangers at stake.
He said “Israeli voters and Palestinians need to understand that this moment may be passing,” suggesting that if current trends go unabated, the ultimate consequence will be a one-state reality.
In 2013, Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry forewarned the window for reaching a two-state deal would close in two years. Three years later, as the peace process is experiencing a bitter stalemate, Obama gave a similar assessment that the existing state of affairs is untenable.
“I continue to be significantly worried about the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” the president said. “I’m worried about it both because I think the status quo is unsustainable, that it is dangerous for Israel, that it is bad for Palestinians, it is bad for the region and it is bad for America’s national security.”
The resolution’s passage, he said, could create “a debate inside both Israeli and Palestinian communities that won’t resolve immediately in peace but at least will lead to a more sober assessment of what the alternatives are.”
After the motion was approved by the Security Council, in December, it sparked a furious response from Israel — the seeming culmination of an eight-year-long disputatious relationship between the American president and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shared a history of expressing grave differences over the conflict.
Trump’s policies are expected to dovetail closer to Netanyahu’s right-wing government. His vow to move the embassy has caused officials in the US and the Arab world to warn it could lead to diplomatic sanctions and an outbreak of street violence.
Trump, who nominated David Friedman, a vocal supporter and donor to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, to be the next US envoy to Israel, used the announcement to signal he was going forward with his campaign pledge.
Introducing the selection, Friedman said he expected to carry out his duties in “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
There have also been reports that Trump’s advisers are already in the process of planning the move, something the last three presidents avoided in fear it would escalate tumult in the region and damage America’s ability to work with the Palestinians.
When asked if he had consulted with Trump about the proposal, Obama stressed that any major position the US takes dealing with final-status issues can spark unintended, and often intense, repurcussions.
“It’s a volatile environment. What we’ve seen in the past is when sudden unilateral moves are made that speak to some of the core issues and sensitivities of either side, that can be explosive,” Obama said, without explicitly mentioning the embassy.
He then proceeded to speak directly to Trump, encouraging him to chart his own policies, but warning him about flouting conventional thinking without reflecting deeply on what might ensue.
“The consequences we take have enormous consequences and ramifications. We’re the biggest kid on the block,” he said. “I think it is right and appropriate for a new president to test all the assumptions and re-examine the old ways of doing things, but if you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through and understand that there are going to be consequences.”
Obama said he came into office “wanting to do everything I could to encourage serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians,” saying his administration “invested a lot of energy, a lot of time, a lot of effort. First year, second year, all the way until the last year.”
They learned, however, that the US cannot impose a resolution on the parties. “What we can do is to facilitate, provide a platform, encourage,” he said. “But we can’t force them to do it.”
President Obama’s term ends Friday at noon, when Trump will take the oath of office outside the US Capitol.
His last public words on the conflict as president recognized his successor’s intention to break sharply from the way he’s managed this issue.
“The president-elect will have his own policy,” Obama conceded. “The ambassador, or the candidate for the ambassadorship, obviously has very different views than I do. That is their prerogative. That is part of what happens after elections. We’ll see how their approach plays itself out.”