Navigate to News section

Why Did Obama Meet With Abbas in Washington?

The president’s Middle East policy has been about minimizing America’s role

Lee Smith
March 17, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) in the Oval Office of the White House March 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) in the Oval Office of the White House March 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Obama met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this morning at the White House. The question is why? Given Obama’s broader strategic view of the Middle East, why does the Arab-Israeli conflict still matter?

Yes, Obama said in his speech last fall to the United Nations General Assembly that Palestinian-Israeli peace is still one of the White House’s two key concerns. It surely matters a lot to Secretary of State John Kerry, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can break the impasse. But the broader issue is that the peace process just doesn’t play the same role in U.S. Middle East policy as it has for four decades. In the context of how the administration is handling its other key diplomatic initiative—Iran—the peace process has entered its mannerist phase, an empty formalism signifying nothing.

From its very beginning in the 1970s, the peace process has more often than not been a song-and-dance routine intended to show America’s Middle East allies that Washington is an honest broker. Sure, it’s close to Israel, but it can also do right by the Palestinians. The less Pollyannaish version, which is Henry Kissinger’s version, is that the peace process shows both Israel and the Arabs who’s boss: America. By backing Israel to the hilt, ensuring that the Arabs will never be able to crush the Zionist usurper, American policymakers illustrated that if Arab oil powers want to win concessions for the Palestinians, then they have to come to Washington on bended knee and ask the Jewish state’s superpower sponsor nicely. This strategy no longer makes sense, at least with the current White House. Obama wants to minimize America’s footprint in the Middle East, not maximize its ability to project power, as the peace process always had up until now.

As I’ve argued before, the peace process is strictly an American affair. Sure, the Europeans are more than willing to invest politically and diplomatically in Arab-Israeli peace, but they’re incapable of giving Jerusalem the security guarantees that made the United States indispensable. The world powers that are willing and able to enforce security promises, like Russia and China, couldn’t care less whether or not Israel makes peace with Mahmoud Abbas. From Putin’s perspective, what’s wrong a permanent occupation? Not much, as he’s demonstrated this week in Ukraine.

Time is running out, Obama recently warned Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But the reality is that it was Obama who held the ball while the clock was ticking down. When Obama first came to office he believed that getting a deal between Israel and the Palestinians would get the Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, on board for the larger project of stopping the Iranian nuclear program. But even before he bungled the peace process during his first term, the Arabs already were on board for Iran and wanted to know what he, as the president of the United States, was doing about it.

Quite a lot, as it turns out. The problem was that much of the administration’s diplomacy with Iran was conducted behind the backs of America’s traditional Gulf Arab allies, including the Saudis—and, they believe, largely at their expense. Obama wants to create a geopolitical equilibrium in the region by balancing Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other. The president says he doesn’t believe in “zero-sum endeavors,” but that’s not how the Saudis and other U.S. regional partners see it. From their point of view, they’re getting knocked down a peg or two while Tehran has become Washington’s new best friend. In other words, even if Obama got a great deal for the Palestinians it wouldn’t matter in the least to the Saudis at this point, because as they see it they’re getting screwed big time when it comes to Iran.

So while there’s been plenty of talk the past few years about how Israel only has so much time to preserve its future as a Jewish and democratic state, the big loser here is Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians themselves. Given all the turmoil sweeping through the region—outright civil war in Syria, sectarian violence from Beirut to Baghdad, and an Iranian regime on the march—it would have been wise to nail down a state before someone winds up pulling it out from underneath them. Maybe that’s why Obama met with him today—a consolation prize for a head of state without a state.