TIME politics

Why Obama Hit Pause

An Iran deal may be possible. Getting Israelis and Palestinians to make peace may not be

We know what a reasonable middle East peace would look like. In December 2000, Bill Clinton laid out the formula. There would be a return to the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps so that the bulk–perhaps 80%–of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands could become part of Israel. Jerusalem would be the capital of both countries. An international commission would control the religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to Palestine but not to Israel. Israel’s sovereignty and security as a Jewish state would be accepted by the Arabs.

There have been other iterations of a framework agreement in the past 14 years, but they’re all based on Clinton’s plan, as Clinton’s was on previous plans. For those who actually want to see a Middle East peace negotiated, this is the consensus solution. In principle, it is favored by a majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and by the Saudis and the Arab League. In practice, who knows? The Israelis are always litigious about the details; the Palestinians always walk away at the last minute. But leading American strategists like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski have said the way to negotiate the impasse is for the U.S. to present an updated version of the framework and allow international pressure to push the Israelis and the Palestinians toward peace.

John Kerry seemed intent on doing that too. But his version of the framework has never been announced–and the chance of the two parties’ producing their own mutually agreed-upon outline evaporated long ago, if it ever existed in the first place. Kerry deserves credit for the energy he’s put into the process, but there has been a tinge of desperation to his efforts over the past months–a reminder of the wobbly garrulousness that has damaged President Obama’s foreign policy since he took office. Kerry raised the loathsome possibility of releasing Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen who spied for Israel, in order to cajole the Israelis into continuing the talks. Then, in congressional testimony on April 8, he weirdly blamed the Israelis for the impasse because of their insistence on building 700 new apartments in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, Gilo, that everyone assumes will be part of Israel if the borders are redrawn. There has been, as with Syria last summer, a melted cheesiness to his public statements when the heat is on.

Why hasn’t Kerry published a framework for the talks as promised? In my interviews with current and former diplomats, a prevailing theme emerged: a reiteration of the Clinton framework would activate the Sheldon Adelson neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, plus many Christian evangelicals who see the annexation of the West Bank territories as biblical prophesy, and this is a fight that Obama doesn’t particularly want at this point. Why not? The President may want to keep his powder dry, in part to keep Jewish voters on the reservation in the 2014 midterms but also because another, more promising fight is looming with the neoconservatives–over the Iran nuclear talks.

Indeed, the Iran talks seem to be going as well as the Middle East talks are going poorly. That’s why you haven’t read much about them in recent weeks. There are still major issues to overcome, but Western negotiators have been impressed by the Iranians’ seriousness and unwillingness to use extraneous events–like the U.S.-Russian tiff over Ukraine–to try to delay the talks or split the U.N. alliance. It is not inconceivable that a deal limiting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and a strict regimen of international inspections will be completed by the end of the year … although, once again, the Administration won’t want it to be finished until after the midterm elections.

The Middle East peace talks continue to chug along, at the request of the Israelis and Palestinians, even after Kerry declared them moribund. It turns out that neither side wants to abandon the illusion of progress–and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, may be keeping his powder dry for the Iran fight as well. But the paralyzed talks have now become another reminder of the Administration’s perceived weakness in foreign policy. Iran may well prove to be the President’s ultimate test–not just the political test of maneuvering a treaty through a Congress heavily influenced by the Israel lobby but also the diplomatic test of dealing with a complicated, opaque Iran, where the reactionary forces will want to reassert their authority if the treaty is successfully negotiated. A remarkable achievement may be within Obama’s grasp, but he and his Secretary of State are going to have to prove more solid, subtle and dependable policy implementers than they have in the past.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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