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December 24, 2020 1:38 pm

Obama’s Failure, Biden’s New Team, and the Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

avatar by Martin Peretz


US Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they deliver joint statements at a meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, March 9, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Debbie Hill / Pool / File.

Barack Obama’s fourth memoir incurs on Jewish history by giving it the title A Promised Land, promised as in plighted, stolen from Lord Balfour. During his actual presidency, Obama’s main incursions on the Promised Land involved the unresolved status of the Palestinians as a plausible obstacle to his pursuit of regional peace with Iran. To this end, he targeted Israel’s West Bank settlements, which he and his Secretary of State John Kerry imprinted on the Democratic mind as the obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. You could recognize this imprint during the 2020 Democratic primaries, as even the relatively moderate Pete Buttigieg (who will now be safely ensconced taking care of the country’s traffic) talking to Ben Rhodes at J Street’s annual conclave of good intentionalists, described Israel as the “friend” who was making bad choices over West Bank settlements; the friend whom America had to steer right. This was the logic, or not logic, of the post-Obama Democratic mind.

But, on the ground in the Promised Land, there was a glitch to the administration’s certainties when it came to Israel: the Palestinians had not ever put forward a serious proposal — even, in fact, a non-serious proposal — that had fine points which would invite at least the weighing of Palestinian intentions. Of course, it would have been better, smoother if the Israelis could have sat down with the Palestinians and ironed out a permanent territorial and civil accommodation. Indeed, in the early years after the Six Day War, the Israelis proposed solutions that would have, with truly minor adjustments, set the cartography almost as it was before the fighting. But after more than half a century maps are no longer static and the political actors have changed or disappeared.  Yasser Arafat is dead and Mahmoud Abbas is playing bagatelle with himself. Hectoring the Israelis for moving rightward, as an actually vicious Kerry under Obama’s orders had done — most egregiously at the UN in 2016 — will not bring Palestine to vibrant life.

Now Obama’s presidency is four years past and he won’t be giving parts of any Middle East turf away to anyone, although there were many from his administration who were readying under a new Democratic president’s command to carve up the Holy Land this way and that. But the incoming president is not Obama and certainly not Buttigieg. It is Joe Biden, a traditional Democrat who is a fan of Israel and who, in my view, doesn’t want Obama’s idealists to bring their biases or beliefs — there is no real difference — to the region.

Primary among these idealist contenders were Susan Rice, John Kerry, and Samantha Power. Rice couldn’t have cared less about Israel… and that in the deepest sense. A fighter, she would have had a tough time getting senatorial approval in any case. Instead, she will be in charge of the economy if the left and the right will allow her.

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Samantha Power might have been counted as one of the risers in the new administration. She was close to Obama and had done enough of his dirty work to count as a certified hand-me-down. In one interview she claimed that making Yom Kippur a United Nations holiday was a standup achievement. (No, UN personnel do not have to fast.) I was the publisher of Power’s magnificent book “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide” and when I recall the bravery of its words I wonder where the Samantha I first met had gone. Anyway, she is now being considered for director of the Agency for International Development with the hype that under her leadership it would get more money to give out. Okay, let’s see.

John Forbes Kerry used to be Obama’s secretary of state. (Of course, he also ran for president in 2004… and lost but ran close behind.)  He was an actual war hero and tried to turn a military medal into a congressional seat… but lost in a Democratic primary to the Roman Catholic pacifistic dean of the Boston College Law School. Later on, he outgunned Al Gore for a seat on the Foreign Relations committee: he aspired to make American foreign policy. But the fact is that Obama was making his own foreign policy and it was in no sense a success, especially in the Middle East. Take Turkey, for example. Yet Obama gave Kerry State and since they agreed that Israel was overreaching and over-stretching there was harmony between the two, at least one capstone. In fact, almost everybody more or less concurred: “almost” and “more or less.” Now Kerry is appointed to the newly-created position of Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate — which, I think, means he will travel places spreading the good word… no more, no less. In any case, he has never, never executed policy.

So at least three public servants have been sequestered away from foreign policy per se. Meantime, the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, may not actually be a Zionist. But his mother nourished him on Jewish milk. (He worked for me at The New Republic. That is not his main credential.) Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, is a fair-minded public servant. All to the good. Rob Malley and Ben Rhodes, the key point people behind selling the Iran deal and persistent, tiresome critics of Israel — Rhodes in his memoir accused Israeli Jews of internalizing a sense of persecution: politics as psychology — are not even in the administration. In its inclusions and its omissions, Biden’s is not a bad foreign policy team with which to start. They are, unlike Rice or Kerry or Power or Obama, pragmatic and centrist Democratic actors. They are not, in my view, going to jerk Middle Eastern policy back to the Obama track.

Meanwhile, on the ground in the Promised Land after the diplomatic victory of the Abraham Accords, Palestine is alive more or less, at least among political cosmeticians… but in no position to fight and, given the real politics of the Arab world, hardly positioned even to argue. President Trump’s heavy hand did not actually blind his sight, at least on this issue; Jared Kushner sees a good deal where there is one. I know him a tiny bit and I don’t especially like him. But let’s face it: Jared is a Zionist and these accords constitute a right-wing Zionist’s dream… but a dream that any Zionist could assimilate. Anyway, there are no annexations contemplated. Who would’ve thought…?

And in this case, what the right-wing Zionists dream matches the desires of many of Israel’s neighbors. In 2016, John Kerry said to a Brookings audience, “I’ve talked to leaders in the Arab community. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.” How many statements have been proven so breathtakingly, so completely, so comprehensively wrong in so little time? The fact is that much of the Arab world was looking for a way out of the conflict with Israel, which was simply not productive in any way and certainly not for the Palestinians. Thanks to the fact that the Democratic victor was Biden, American policy will most likely accede to this trend of increasingly cooperative ties between Israel and Arab states in the next four years.

Martin Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 to 2013.

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