During a press conference with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, President Barack Obama was asked about the state of relations between the US and Israel.
In the runup to Israel’s March 17th national elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement in which he said he didn’t believe his conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian State would be met during his term in office.
Obama was asked whether this apparent walk-back was enough to prevent the US from “re-evaluating” its approach to the Middle East peace process, as administration officials claimed the week after the election.
Obama spent nearly ten minutes on the question. But the short answer was “no.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu in the election runup stated that a Palestinian state would not occur when he’s Prime Minister, and I took him at his word that that’s what he meant and I think a lot of voters inside Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally,” said Obama.
Netanyahu’s subsequent hedging wasn’t enough to convince the president that his Israeli counterpart really believes in the two-state formulation.
“Afterwards he pointed out he didn’t say never but that there’d be a series of conditions,” Obama continued, “but the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet any time soon. So even if you accepted the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a who range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time.”
Obama appears to believe that Israeli and American policy on the resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are now fundamentally at odds.
That raises a few immediate implications for US policy in the Middle East. If the US no longer believes Israel is committed to the peace process that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords, it could decide not to block unilateral Palestinian moves at the United Nations Security Council that attempt to resolve the conflict from outside of the peace process’s framework — such as ongoing Palestinian Authority efforts to be recognised as a sovereign state.
In the Israeli and US view, the PA’s political status can only be determined through negotiations within the peace process. But the last two-and-a-half decades of US policy in the Middle East has been premised on the assumption that both Israel and the PA endorse that process and its eventual goals. At the press conference, Obama seemed to say that this assumption no longer holds, at least in Israel’s case.
It’s unclear what this may mean in practicality, but there have already been reports of the US planning to withdraw some of its support for Israel at the UN.
Later in his answer, Obama tired to explain what administration officials have meant in saying that there might be an “evaluation” of where ties with Israel stand.
“The evaluation that’s taking place is specific to what happens between Israelis and Palestinians going forward,” said Obama. “We will continue to engage the Israeli government as well as the Palestinians and ask them where they’re interested in going and how they see this issue being resolved. What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something everybody knows is not going to happen at least not in the next several years.”
The Obama administration isn’t expecting any progress on the peace process out of Netanyahu, but clearly wants progress anyway. Obama left unclear how some forward movement on the conflict could be coerced from the Israeli leader, but clearly implied that this would require a shift in the US’s current policy.
Obama closed by reiterating that US security and military cooperation with Israel would continue as normal, and explained that his tensions with Netanyahu had to do with policy rather than with personal animosity.
“The issue is a very clear substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israelis’ security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability. That’s our view and that continues to be our view. Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach.”
This might not be too effective an appeal in Jerusalem. Netanyahu has twice made concessions to the Palestinians simply to enter into negotiations, ordering the first West Bank settlement freeze in Israeli history in 2009, and authorizing the release of scores of convicted terrorists in 2013.
In the former instance, Israel and the PA entered into brief proximity talks; in the former, the Israelis and Palestinians negotiated for 9 months that ended in the PA forming a unity government with Hamas, a US-listed terrorist organisation.
Even so, the repeated threat of a change in the US’s approach to the conflict — from the president of the United States himself — could presage a shift the conflict’s dynamics at some point in the near future.
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