Obama Talks Middle East Peace Amid Crimea Crisis

The president welcomes Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to the White House.

President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009
President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Washington’s attention may be focused on events in the Crimea but the rest of the world is not standing still. Indeed, on the very day Russian officials moved to formally annex the peninsula from Ukraine, President Barack Obama delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday, he hosted Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington DC. As was the case when Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this month, Abbas was treated to a red carpet welcome and both leaders exchanged platitudes in front of reporters about the need for peace, the importance of the diplomatic process and why the conflict needs to end after festering for so many years. As President Abbas said, “We don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side.”

As usual, President Obama was cautiously upbeat about the situation, despite the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remain far apart on the very issues that have ruined previous talks: settlements, borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem.

“This is obviously an elusive goal and there’s a reason why it’s taken decades for us to even get to the point where we are now,” the president said. “But we remain convinced that there is an opportunity.” He added, “I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides but also the peoples of both sides to embrace this opportunity for peace.”

The question now, as it has always been, is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority feel the same sense of urgency.

Judging from Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in recent months, it does not appear that either side is willing or able to come to the difficult political decisions that the Americans say are needed for diplomacy to succeed. Where Kerry was once optimistic about concluding a final peace agreement by April of next year, he has dialed those expectations down, pushing instead for a framework agreement that would stretch out the process further into the year. Despite the fact that the parameters of a peace agreement have been well known since the Clinton Parameters of 2000, Abbas and Netanyahu are constrained by multiple factors — some of which, like the holdout of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, are outside of their control.

Over the long-term, Obama’s discussions with Abbas are unlikely to produce more than his talks with Netanyahu; that is, without any progress on moving the process forward. At best, the administration, with Secretary Kerry in the lead, will keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going for the remainder of the year and hope that a framework will find enough common ground for Abbas and Netanyahu to latch onto.

The dispute is difficult and challenging, as Obama and Kerry have constantly said. But if there is one positive, it is that the Israelis and Palestinians continue to negotiate, if for the simple reason that neither side wants to be blamed for spoiling an effort that John Kerry has invested so much of his own credibility in.