Will Obama launch a lame-duck Israel surprise? Not likely.
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Election 2016

Will Obama launch a lame-duck Israel surprise? Not likely.

Obama phone

President Barack Obama talking on the phone in the Oval Office, July 15, 2016. (Pete Souza/ Official White House Photo)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – It started several months ago in anxious whispers among pro-Israel leaders. Now it has burst into the open in full-page ads in The New York Times and op-eds in The Wall Street Journal:

Does Barack Obama have a lame-duck surprise in store for Israel? Or, as the Zionist Organization of America, one of the president’s fiercest critics, asked in the Times ad: “Will President Obama Betray Israel?”

In other words, will an unfettered Obama take unilateral steps, perhaps through the United Nations, to force his vision of a final-status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

On the eve of the election, the answer is not likely, no matter who prevails. Obama’s anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, has made it clear she really, really does not want to deal with the fallout of any last minute U.S.-Israel tensions.

And even if Donald Trump is elected, Obama has not shown much appetite for another run at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, especially after the catastrophic demise of the last round.

“Hillary Clinton has made clear her view that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be imposed from the outside, including at the U.N. – and she stands fully behind that position,” Laura Rosenberger, a top adviser to the Clinton campaign, told JTA in an email.

A campaign official added to JTA that Clinton has made her preference – that there be no lame-duck surprise – clear to Obama.

And Obama has made clear, through his fervent campaigning for Clinton in the final weeks of her campaign, that he wants as smooth a transition as possible.

And even if Clinton should lose, Obama has signaled that when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, he’s pretty much done.

In his last meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in New York in September, Obama conceded the issue to Netanyahu, who rejects outside interference in the process, precisely because Netanyahu is in for the long term and Obama is not.

“Obviously, I’m only going be to be president for another few months,” he said at the time. “The prime minister will be there quite a bit longer and our hope will be that in these conversations we get a sense of how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.”

What’s true, according to Jewish officials who consult with administration and congressional officials, is that administration officials have discussed, since the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in April 2014, moves the administration could take to keep the two-state solution alive. Those options remain on the table, even if the likelihood that Obama will act on them wanes with each passing day.

“Every person I’ve spoken to in the State Department and White House say they have no idea what the president is going to do,” said Michael Koplow, the Washington, D.C.-based policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, a group that backs re-engagement on the peace process. “No decisions have been made.”

The options under consideration, according to reports, go as far as backing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would effectively recognize a state of Palestine, or are as benign as Obama outlining what he sees as the best outcome, in an interview or at a news conference.

One source for the angst currently infecting the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel community is the historical record.

In late 1988, President Ronald Reagan in his lame duck period recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as a favor to his successor, Vice President George H. W. Bush. President Bill Clinton outlined the parameters of a two-state outcome in December 2000 and January 2001, his final days in office, in a bid to salvage his second-term efforts to broker a peace deal.

But neither condition holds in this case: Unlike with Bill Clinton, there is no peace process underway; and unlike the first President Bush, Hillary Clinton doesn’t want the incumbent to do her any Israel-related favors. In the emails stolen from her campaign and posted by WikiLeaks, Clinton’s advisers have hopped with anxiety every time tensions rose between Obama and Netanyahu.

“Every indication we’ve had is that a President Clinton would want to calm things down with the Israelis,” Koplow said.

The anxieties persist, however. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in September organized a letter signed by 88 senators urging Obama to quash any “one-sided” Security Council resolution on Israel.

The ZOA ad quoted a third-hand account of what the administration may be thinking in an 18-month-old memo from Stuart Eizenstat, an old Israel hand, to the Clinton campaign that was stolen from the account of her campaign manager, John Podesta, and posted on WikiLeaks.

The ad’s more recent citations are of a routine State Department condemnation last month of Israeli settlement building, which included an expression of the longstanding U.S. concern that any U.N. maneuver would be “one-sided.” The spokesman in that case added that the administration would also “carefully consider our future engagement” — the ZOA determined that signaled a major shift.

The ad also quoted, as somehow probative, a New York Times editorial warning that the settlement expansion could lead to “consequences.” The ZOA argument hearkened back to the Cold War era, when presidential administrations would tease out positions through friendly newspapers before making them public.

The ZOA also pointed to the White House transcript of Obama’s eulogy in September at the funeral for former Israeli President Shimon Peres; an early version of the transcript referred to“Jerusalem, Israel” and was later corrected to “Jerusalem.” For decades, U.S. administrations have consistently held that the status of Jerusalem is unresolved.

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Obama’s Israel Surprise?” saying that the farthest-reaching possibility for the administration would be to allow through, without veto, a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. That was unlikely, he said, if only because Congress would nix it, perhaps by cutting funding to the United Nations.

“Congress would become unyielding,” he said. “The president would be forced to spike it.”

More likely, he said, are two less consequential actions: a speech by Obama outlining the parameters he sees for a two-state solution, or allowing through a narrow resolution condemning settlement expansion. (That would be a first for the Obama administration, which unlike every administration since 1968 has vetoed all resolutions related to the Israeli-Arab conflict that have been opposed by Israel.)

The settlements resolution might not advance, Schanzer said, because the Obama administration could insist on balancing it with language that would soften it for Israel – condemning Palestinian incitement, for instance – that the Palestinians and their U.N. allies would oppose.

That leaves the parameters speech, which would have the fewest consequences, if any, although it would engender bitterness in Jerusalem.

“The Israelis would likely be unhappy, it would likely call for concessions that they would prefer to be done in negotiations,” Schanzer said. “The drawbacks are minimal because he can speak whenever he likes – and it’s nonbinding.”