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After President Obama’s trip to the Middle East, can he be more assertive in solving Israeli-Palestinian issues?

Question submitted by Mirvet S Muca, Ph.D, from Naugatuck Valley Comm. College, April 15, 2013

Answered by: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs


The conventional wisdom has it that second-term presidents, freed from the need to win another election, tend to be bolder in their initiatives. While that logic may apply to President Obama's domestic policy, it is unlikely to extend abroad. There is little chance that Obama will be more assertive addressing Israeli-Palestinian issues moving forward.

The administration's cautious response to Syria shows how little appetite it has for getting involved in yet another foreign adventure (remember, the United States just got out of Iraq and is desperately trying to leave Afghanistan).

And the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is, if anything, even less appealing to Washington. First, it is a problem no president since Nixon has managed to make progress on, and it has burned the fingers of those (like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) who tried to tackle it. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis tend to resist and resent outside pressure.

Next, conditions on the ground are even less conducive than usual. The Palestinians are split between Hamas, which rules Gaza and rejects any peace with Israel, and Fatah, which rules the West Bank. Fatah might seem a more promising partner, since its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has forsworn violence. But Abbas is too politically weak to be an effective partner, especially since his reformist prime minister, Salam Fayyad, resigned recently.

And then there is Israel. The recent election there weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who has never been enthusiastic about the peace process—and elevated a number of more moderate parties. But even the new moderates in the Knesset have shown little interest in resuming peace talks and even less in making serious concessions.

Obama, a quintessential cold-eyed realist, sees all of this. The last thing he needs is to pick another fight he is unlikely to win. So we should not expect a serious effort from the administration to broker a peace.