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The Last Temptation of Barack Obama and John Kerry

As we enter the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Mideast watchers might have begun 2016 convinced that the current administration was done with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Who wouldn’t reach that conclusion? The gaps on the core issues and the mistrust between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are wider than the Grand Canyon. Surely, the U.S. president and his erstwhile secretary of state wouldn’t be interested in chasing such a lost cause.

But despite the fact that any chance of serious progress between Israelis and Palestinians (which would fall somewhere between one very long shot and one very hopeless cause), I’m going to be that this administration can’t help but “do something” about what’s left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

It’s clearly a counterintuitive call. Any number of reasons would argue against “doing anything” — high odds of failure, tensions with Netanyahu, and plenty of other Middle Eastern business from stopping the Islamic State to putting Syria back together to ramping up a military operation to take back Mosul. But Obama’s desire to leave his fingerprints on the Palestinian issue represents the last temptation in his foreign-policy agenda. But that effort may not focus on a real negotiation or an actual breakthrough between the parties, though at a minimum it will revolve around an effort to leave an American or international framework or set of parameters that outlines the administration’s view of what a solution might be by year’s end.

And here’s why:

First, there’s unfinished business. Two days after his inauguration in 2009, the president, standing with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appointed George Mitchell his special envoy to deal with the peace process. Later on in various comments and remarks, Obama went on to make some foolish promises about delivering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within two years and made an equally unwise commitment to a comprehensive settlements freeze. None of this, of course, materialized, and in the years that followed, Obama was beaten by Netanyahu at almost every diplomatic turn, his credibility on those promises eventually in tatters.

And while the Iran nuclear agreement showed that the president was willing to fight and win with Bibi over something in which he believed, I believe he’d like to deliver something that shows he’s still got game on the peace process, too. And if Obama has demonstrated anything — sometimes to a fault — it is that he will act, if necessary, unilaterally.

Second, John Kerry will be there to encourage him. Rarely (actually, having worked for half a dozen secretaries of state, never) has the nation’s top diplomat cared more about this issue or believed in his own capacity to make something good happen. By the way, that’s not always a good thing, largely because it encourages that old compelling but destructive adage that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. And well-intentioned or not, fail he did at almost every turn. Still, as his ill-fated year-long initiative in 2013 demonstrated, Kerry believes this is a critically important issue for America and Israel and their respective interests and credibility futures in the Middle East. In a December 2015 speech at the Saban Forum, he played down the United States taking the lead role but, as he has done so many times before, warned of the potential disaster that would befall Israel if the Palestinians and Israelis (read: mostly Israel) didn’t make the right decisions in peacemaking. This time the impending apocalypse was the collapse of the Palestinian Authority government, which would lead to chaos or Hamas gaining influence.

Finally, as time runs out on the presidential hourglass, the “need to do something” syndrome is kicking in. Based on my own experience working the peace process, this need can be quite compelling regardless of the odds of success. And if the situation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians truly spins out of control, the urgency of acting and the rationalizations to do so will increase. Within a year, the president will be leaving a Middle East far worse off than the one he inherited. And fair or not, he’ll be blamed.

The current state of the peace process is Exhibit A: a terrible relationship with Israel; no credibility with the Palestinians; an increase in settlement activity; a low-tech terrorism wave carried out by young Palestinians; and a failed peace initiative. Indeed, it would appear that, as of now, there’s not a single positive accomplishment he can pass on to the next administration.

So, what might the last temptation to action on the peace process look like? It’s pretty weak tea. But here are a range of possibilities.

A real peace process? Sadly, the best strategy — at least on paper — involves pretty long odds, in part because it means banking on Netanyahu and Abbas actually owning the process themselves. That would take a shared recognition on both their parts that the conflict needs to be managed, not resolved. Their agreement on an interim phase approach would have to focus on maintaining security cooperation; addressing economic issues and access and movement issues for Palestinians so that travel within the West Bank and to and from Israel would be eased; responsible state-building by the Palestinians; and perhaps some Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and conversion of other areas where Palestinians only exercise civil authority to include security control as well.

This approach, however, might still require some agreement — even in principle — on what the endgame will be, however gradual the road to achieve it. Given the absence of trust, interest, and politics on both sides, it’s hard to imagine either the Israelis or the Palestinians buying it. Still, I can understand why the administration is seeking to test this proposition to determine whether there’s any interest. It would be smart in any event before they move on to another approach.

A virtual endgame? In the absence of a real process, perhaps Obama and the secretary of state will want to leave another kind of peace-process legacy behind, one more virtual in character. The essence here would be to lay out in some fashion what the terms of reference for such a two-state settlement would be — on the core issues: Jerusalem, borders, security, territory, and refugees — whether the two sides accept them or not. This might take the form of a presidential address or a more tailored diplomatic approach — the Obama parameters — which, as in the case of former President Bill Clinton’s earlier effort, were actually read out to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators by the president himself in December 2000 after the elections.

There’s also the option of taking the virtual process international, getting the so-called Quartet — the United States, United Nations, Russia, and European Union — to endorse final status endgame parameters or even the nuclear option to try to embody these terms in a U.N. Security Council resolution as the French have been pushing for. Any of these efforts is likely to trigger a pretty big fight with Netanyahu, who is waiting out the Obama administration in anticipation of a successor more attuned to Israel’s interests. And it won’t be a cake walk getting the Palestinians or the Arab states on board either.

A regional approach? One additional course of action is also possible to contemplate. And that’s using the anti-Islamic State counterterrorism interest of Arabs and Israelis alike to convene a regional conference, much along the lines of the 1996 Sharm el-Sheikh summit during which Clinton convened more than 20 Arab countries and Israel after Hamas carried out a spate of suicide attacks against Israelis that spring. Times were different then. Shimon Peres was the Israeli prime minister running against — you got it — Netanyahu in a May election. And the Clinton administration wanted to do anything they could to help Peres get elected in 1996. (He lost.) Any regional approach would need to rely in some fashion on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offered Arab state recognition of Israel in exchange for Palestinian statehood. Israel and Egypt are closer now than ever before, and there is an indirect alignment between Israel and the Gulf states in opposition to Iran. Still, the key challenge would be identifying a common set of principles on which Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians could agree. And that won’t be easy.

But no matter. My bet is that the administration’s peace-process fever hasn’t broken. And one way or another — through an effort to create a real peace process or a virtual one — Kerry and Obama will be back at it again in 2016. Count on that, and on one more thing: The Israeli-Palestinian problem — like so many other issues in the broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East — is likely to be around to annoy whomever the next president turns out to be.

Aaron David Miller