AnalysisCarefully crafted address reflects White House pessimism on the peace process

In agenda-setting speech, Obama significantly puts Palestinian peace low

The State of the Union sets out expectations. So it means something that the president mentioned Israel just once in 6,500 words, and the Palestinians not at all

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12 (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
US President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12 (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

NEW YORK — President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel next month has understandably sparked aggressive speculation about what he may bring with him. A new peace push? A more detailed commitment on Iran, perhaps?

Some in Israel’s Hebrew press have taken particular pleasure in speculating if Obama might use the opportunity to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again on settlement construction or overtures toward the Palestinian Authority.

But at every opportunity Obama has signaled the opposite: a detachment from the Israeli-Palestinian question and an unwillingness to invest political capital or presidential prestige on what the administration seems to have concluded is an unwinnable morass.

We’ve been there before, the White House seems to be saying. As the famous old peace-process adage has it, you can’t want peace more than the sides engaged in the actual conflict.

Tuesday’s State of the Union was no exception to this increasingly apparent rule.

Israel was mentioned just once in almost 6,500 words. The Palestinians — surely a priority if peace talks are on the agenda — were left out of the speech entirely.

For comparison, the words “job” or “jobs” were mentioned 45 times, “energy” 18 times, and Afghanistan seven times.

Does it matter? In a speech clearly focused on the recovering economy, gun control and other domestic concerns, is it significant that the only mention of Israel came at the end of a paragraph dealing primarily with the Arab Spring? That in describing his coming trip to the region, the president said he will use it to deliver the intangible “messages” of stronger alliances, support for democracy and fundamental rights in a changing region, and a vague promise to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace?”

In a word: yes.

The State of the Union, delivered annually to a joint session of Congress, is one of the president’s constitutional duties. Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

By its nature the State of the Union is comprehensive, offering a laundry list of an administration’s accomplishments, challenges and policy proposals as the president sees them. Carefully crafted over the better part of a month by the White House speechwriting team, the word-count, placement, and language given to a particular issue in the speech is seen as an indicator of how a president prioritizes that issue. More than anything else, the speech is a vehicle through which presidents have attempted to set expectations for the coming year.

This year, don’t expect Israel or Israeli-Palestinian peace to be anywhere near the top of the priority list.

Nearly every foreign policy issue currently on the president’s agenda came before the fleeting mention of Israel and peace: the withdrawal from Afghanistan; the battle with Al Qaeda; the administration’s promise to coordinate better with Congress on oversight of its counterterrorism operations; North Korea’s nuclear weapons test and a bolstered Western missile defense; Iran facing a united coalition “demanding that they meet their obligations;” the promise to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal; the growing threat of cyber-attacks; lifting trade barriers with Europe and Asia; fighting global poverty and AIDS; supporting freedom in Burma and the Middle East.

Only then, at the bottom of a long list of global issues, few of which are themselves handled intensely at the presidential level, comes Israel.

To be sure, the low priority given to Israel on the laundry list of the president’s 2013 agenda items does not indicate he does not like Israel. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be breathing a sigh of relief at the clear signal that Obama won’t be investing much effort in extracting painful — and Netanyahu has argued, ineffective — concessions from the Israeli government to jumpstart negotiations.

It won’t hurt Obama’s popularity in the Israeli government that the Palestinians were not mentioned at all.

Rather than signal a distancing between Israel and the US, the speech actually reflects the frustration and pessimism felt in the White House when it comes to the peace process itself. As Obama’s second term gets underway, it may be a signal to the Palestinians that they will have to commit more energetically to peace talk before the White House will reengage in negotiations that have remained stubbornly stalled throughout Obama’s first term.

Obama will visit Israel next month, lay the requisite wreaths, intone the expected speech in the Knesset about shared values, and move on.

As he explained in great detail across 6,000 words Tuesday night, he has a global economy to fix, a planetary ecosystem to rescue, a global order to maintain.

When it comes to our little conflict and our little peace process, we, and the Palestinians even more so, may be on our own.

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