Obama rules out Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before leaving office

US officials say president has made ‘realistic assessment’; will discuss steps to prevent further violence with Netanyahu on Monday

From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas during a trilateral meeting in New York, September 22, 2009 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas during a trilateral meeting in New York, September 22, 2009 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

US officials said Thursday that President Barack Obama has made a “realistic assessment” that a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is not possible during his final months in office.

The stark assessment comes ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Monday — the first meeting between the two leaders in more than a year. Preparation for that meeting has been overshadowed by Netanyahu’s appointment of a new media chief, Ran Baratz, who has previously branded Obama an anti-Semite and mocked Secretary of State John Kerry. Netanyahu was Thursday night said to have told Kerry that he was reviewing the appointment.

Officials said the two leaders will discuss steps to prevent a confrontation between the parties in the absence of a two-state solution. They said that while Obama remains committed to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, he does not believe it’s possible before he leaves office in January 2017, barring a major shift.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told Israeli reporters that the president would want to hear from Netanyahu on Monday ways in which the prime minister will seek to keep a two-state solution viable even in the absence of direct negotiations. Rhodes said Obama regards a two-state solution as urgent, and reiterated the US stance that settlement building undermines faith in the diplomatic process and delays such a solution.

“The main thing the president would want to hear from Netanyahu is that, without peace talks, how does he want to move forward to prevent a one-state solution, stabilize the situation on the ground and to signal he is committed to the two-state solution,” said Rob Malley, the president’s senior adviser on the Middle East, according to Haaretz.

The president expects that Netanyahu will take trust-building steps that “leave the door open for a two-state solution,” Malley said, without elaborating. “We said for some time that we expect from both parties to show that they are committed to a two-state solution. We would expect they take steps that are consistent with that,” Malley said.

A wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence, marked by dozens of Palestinian stabbing attacks on Israelis, broke out two months ago; clashes at Jerusalem’s contested Temple Mount have been followed by Palestinian terror attacks across Israel and into the West Bank, and Palestinian-Israeli clashes in the West Bank and at the border with the Gaza Strip.

At a press conference last month, Obama reiterated his long-held conviction that the only way Israel would be secure, and the Palestinians would meet their aspirations, was via a two-state solution. He indicated then, but did not spell out, that the US was not about to start a new peace effort, saying “it’s going to be up to the parties” to do that, “and we stand ready to assist.”

Kerry sought to broker an accord in 2013-2014, but the effort collapsed amid a stream of bitter accusations and recriminations between the sides.

With no realistic prospect of substantial negotiated progress, the Obama administration is said to remain determined to keep the idea of a two-state solution viable, and it is understood the president and the prime minister will discuss possible steps in that direction.

The two leaders will likely discuss means to prevent a further deterioration on the ground, including how to thwart further terrorism; tackle incitement more effectively; deal with the strained Palestinian Authority; and safeguard Israeli-Jordanian relations.

No meeting is known to be scheduled for the near future between Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The two leaders are also expected to announce that their allied countries are at work on a new long-term agreement for US defense assistance to Israel. The current 10-year framework, which provided for over $30 billion in US military aid, expires in 2018, and there has been talk of a new 10-year framework valued at $40-50 billion in total.

Obama and Netanyahu are expected to discuss commitments that could see Israel get more than the 33 hi-tech F-35 jets already ordered, precision munitions and a chance to buy V-22 Ospreys and other weapons systems designed to ensure Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.

The weapons said to be under discussion reflect the prominence of Iran in US and Israeli military thinking.

The F-35 is the only aircraft able to counter the S-300 surface-to-air missile system that Russia has suggested it may sell to Tehran.

Officials said Israel may also seek to ensure that other US allies in the region do not get the F-35.

The White House has so far rebuffed Arab Gulf states’ requests to buy the planes.

But while Israel has been offered some bunker-busting bombs, divisions over how to handle Tehran may put the sale of 30,000 pound “Massive Ordnance Penetrators” that could be used to target Iranian nuclear sites off the table.

“This is not something that has been raised in the context of the MoU discussions,” said senior Obama national security aide Ben Rhodes, referring to the deal, known formally as a memorandum of understanding.

Military experts say Israel’s lack of bunker-busting capability has limited Netanyahu’s ability to launch a unilateral strike against Iran, effectively giving Washington a veto over military action.

The visit, Rhodes said, “would be an opportunity to discuss and hear from Israel its assessment of its security challenges and the related security needs it has… whether it is something like the F-35 or a variety of others.”

Obama and Netanyahu will be meeting face-to-face for the first time since the US and its partners reached a nuclear accord with Iran. Netanyahu has been a chief critic of the deal.

On that vexed issue, the meeting could mark the day when Netanyahu finally engages with the administration on the practical implications of the deal, enabling the two sides to get down to work coordinating their positions on countering the threats posed by an emboldened and soon-to-be wealthier Iran, and on the appropriate responses to possible Iranian violations of the deal.

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