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Fact Sheets: Will President Obama Have Time For Israel and the Palestinians?

(Updated November 2008)

President Obama will face a series of domestic and international challenges the day he enters the Oval Office. Some people argue he will not have time to devote to the Arab-Israeli conflict because he will have to concentrate on resolving the economic crisis and decide what to do about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others believe he cannot ignore Israel and the Palestinians because the absence of diplomatic activity by the United States creates a vacuum usually filled by violence.

Obama is likely to listen to those advisers who favor active engagement on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The general Democratic Party view is that the Bush Administration neglected the issues for too long and that the United States must engage the parties to prevent them from taking unilateral actions that complicate negotiations – for example, Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian terrorism.

Obama will also find himself under pressure from the international community to focus on the “Palestinian issue.” On the eve of the election, the European Union foreign ministers drafted a letter outlining steps for the next American president which included a call for the United States to re-engage in the peace process. Obama can expect to be hectored by many European leaders to take an active role in negotiations and their prescriptions are likely to emphasize pressuring Israel to make concessions. Given Obama’s desire to improve U.S. relations with our allies, he also will be pushed to give them a larger role in negotiations.

America’s Arab allies will also be looking for an early sign of Obama’s disposition. They viewed George W. Bush as too sympathetic to Israel and are hoping Obama will exert pressure on the Israelis to capitulate to Palestinian demands. During the campaign Obama said he would urge the Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, an idea they will resist so long as the Palestinian issue is unresolved.

In addition, State Department Arabists see a chance to be unchained after eight years of Middle East policy being directed more by the President, the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of Defense than by the “experts” in Foggy Bottom. These Arabists, along with several of Obama’s advisers who are expected to hold key positions, believe they know how to make peace and are chomping at the bit to resume their diplomatic efforts, which are likely to focus largely on pressuring Israel to make concessions. Most are vehement opponents of Israeli settlement policy and will try to convince President Obama to pressure Israel to first stop construction and ultimately dismantle them. They also will push for Israel to divide Jerusalem and allow the Palestinians to establish a capital there. The “Clinton Parameters” will likely be the starting point for them. The only issues on which they are likely to strongly back Israel are on ending terror and incitement, and finding a formula for compensating the Palestinian refugees that finesses the “right of return.”

According to exit polls, it appears Obama exceeded the historical average (72 percent) of the Jewish vote, winning 78 percent. Those Jews active in the campaign who assured their co-religionists of Obama’s support for Israel, will also exert pressure on the president to fulfill his campaign commitment to Israel’s security. They will support efforts to promote a two-state solution, which is also favored by Israel’s leaders, but most will oppose any effort to impose a settlement on Israel.

Congress will also play a key role in shaping Obama’s policy. On one hand, since the Democrats have majorities in both chambers, they will want to support their president, particularly on issues cast in terms of national security. On the other hand, the members are nearly unanimous in their support for Israel and may place constraints on Obama’s options, and limit his ability to put undue pressure on Israel should he decide to go in that direction.

Regardless of how Obama decides to proceed, he will face a number of objective difficulties at the outset as well as longstanding obstacles to resolving the conflict. First, there will necessarily be a long period of inactivity. Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is planning another trip to the region and hopes to nail down some agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, neither side is likely to make commitments to an outgoing administration. They want to see what Obama plans to do. The new president will also need weeks or months to get his team in place and will need to get acquainted with all the major players inside and outside the Middle East. Most of his supporters are going to be expecting him to deliver on promises on the domestic side before he gets too involved in new foreign policy initiatives.

In addition, the Palestinians and Israelis have their own leadership crises. The Palestinians may or may not have elections as President Mahmoud Abbas’ term ends in January. Fatah and Hamas are still fighting over who will run the Palestinian Authority. It’s not clear if or when that will be resolved. Even if Abbas manages to stay in office, he’s not going to have any more power to make or implement an agreement than he has today. He is so impotent he can’t leave Ramallah let alone make the necessary compromises to reach an agreement with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli policy is paralyzed until a new prime minister is chosen in February. Whoever is elected will need some time to organize a government, though far less than Obama because all the candidates already have experience and should have their teams in place quickly. If Tzipi Livni is elected, Obama will have someone to work with who is already deeply involved in negotiations with the existing Palestinian leadership. If, however, Benjamin Netanyahu wins, as most people now predict, Obama will be working with someone who is just as committed to peace as his rival, but more skeptical of the Palestinians’ sincerity, and more resistant to prescriptions favored by the State Department.

Personal chemistry will also be an issue. The strong relationship, for example, between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon helped strengthen ties between the countries. How Obama relates to the leaders in the region will play a very important role in the quality of the relationship between the United States and Middle East nations.

Other actors in the region will also influence Obama’s options. For example, what if Hamas bombards Israel with missiles or launches a wave of suicide attacks that provokes an Israeli military operation in Gaza? What if Hezbollah resumes attacks on Israel from the north or overthrows the current Lebanese government? Obama may be forced to develop policies on the fly and his agenda may be driven by events rather than his objectives and timetable.

Obama will also have to devise a policy toward Syria in the context of its negotiations with Israel and its failure to secure its border with Iraq. Israel has offered Syria most, if not all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Will Obama be willing to exert pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to sign an agreement? Past presidents invested a lot of energy on this track before concluding the Syrians had no real interest in peace.

Iran is the most urgent issue. In the two months before Obama takes office, and whatever additional time he requires to put his team in place, Iran will be that much closer to building a nuclear bomb. During the campaign Obama talked about engaging with the leaders in Tehran. Will he do so early in his administration? Is there any reason to believe he will be any more successful in convincing them to give up their nuclear ambitions than the Europeans have been over the last four years? Will he impose stricter sanctions or will he conclude a military option should be pursued? If Obama waits too long, or is viewed as unwilling to stop Iran, will Israel act preemptively? What will be the consequences of an Israeli strike; is Obama prepared for them?

The issues Obama faces in the region – and we have not even mentioned the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan or the broader war on terror – will require careful study and thoughtful action. Every president who has tried to force peace on the Israelis and Palestinians has failed. The parties already know what is required for an agreement. Once both sides have resolved their leadership crises, and resume talks, it may be possible for Obama to mediate and bridge some of the differences.