Braces for Obama’s Parting Gift to Palestinians
By Eli Lake
October 7, 2016
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was
re-elected last year, the White House threatened to
reconsider long-standing U.S. policy to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions
on Israel's presence in the West Bank. At issue was a last-minute interview in
which Netanyahu said there would be no Palestinian state as long as he was prime
minister. He took back that statement after the election. Nonetheless, the White
House directed policymakers to draw up a set of options for how Obama could
"preserve the two-state solution," according to one U.S. official
privy to the process.
So far, nothing has come of Obama's threat. Indeed last
month, Obama signed an agreement with Israel to extend the U.S. subsidy of its
military for another ten years. In foreign policy, Obama is focused on the
collapse of U.S. policy in Syria, which has become an even greater humanitarian
emergency in the last month with the Russian and Iranian-led siege of Aleppo.
Politically, the White House is working to elect Hillary Clinton as Obama's
Yet with a little more than three months left of his
presidency, Israeli officials privately say they worry Obama intends to try to
level the playing field between the Palestinians and Israelis before he leaves
office. The threat of a last-minute speech, executive order, or U.N. action has
stirred some of Israel's friends in Washington. Last month, for example, 88
senators signed a letter to
Obama urging him to restate "long-standing U.S. policy" to veto
one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N.
The Obama administration has not made such a statement.
This week, however, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest "strongly
condemned" Israel's approval of 98 new housing units in the West Bank
settlement of Shilo. A CBS correspondent noted that
this phrasing is "usually reserved" for terrorist attacks.
The U.S. has opposed Israeli settlement construction in the
land it won in the 1967 war since the 1970s. Under Obama, however, the public
denunciations of Israeli settlements have often been delivered at the highest
levels of the government and in particularly harsh language.
So far, though, Obama has not sanctioned Israel for
settlements, preferring instead to censure. This is where the options from 2015
could come into play. U.S. officials who have been briefed on them tell me they
run from the substantive to the symbolic.
On the milder end would be a speech Obama would deliver
outlining his parameters for a two-state solution. This approach is similar to a
speech Bill Clinton gave at the end of his presidency that laid out such
parameters. In Obama's case, the speech could disclose the concessions Netanyahu
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were willing to make in negotiations
that fell apart in 2014.
The options also include tougher measures such as support
for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would supersede U.N. Security
Council resolution 242, which was drafted in 1967. That calls on Israel to
withdraw from the territory it won in the Six Day War, but calls on that
territory to be returned to Israel's neighbors, not an independent Palestinian
Other policy options include changes to the U.S. tax code
to target U.S. charities that support West Bank settlements today. Last month, J
Street, the self-anointed "political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace
Americans," began a new
campaign to get the Internal Revenue Service to withdraw the tax-exempt
status for charities that "entrench or expand Israeli settlement
activity" in the West Bank.
Another option in the 2015 policy memo would have the U.S.
recognize a Palestinian state or upgrade its diplomatic presence.
All of these policies are likely to meet stiff opposition
from Israel's government and its friends in Washington. Obama has faced this
kind of opposition before. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee opposed
his Iran nuclear deal and yet the White House managed to get just enough
Democrats to put the bargain through Congress, even though the president did not
ask the Senate to ratify the agreement as a treaty.
That was in 2015, though, when Obama still had more than a
year left in office. It remains to be seen how many Democrats will oppose him if
he tries to punish Israeli settlement activity in the final weeks of his