THE LATEST AMERICAN DIPLOMATIC RETREAT IN THE NEAR EAST: A COMMENT
"WASHINGTON — After three weeks of fruitless haggling with the Israeli government, the Obama administration has given up its effort to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renew an expired freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements for 90days, two senior officials said on Tuesday. The decision leaves Middle East peace talks in limbo, with the Palestinians refusing to resume negotiations absent a settlement freeze and the United States struggling to find another formula to bring them back to negotiations. It is the latest setback in what has proved to be a tortuous engagement for President Obama. Officials said the administration decided to pull the plug because it concluded that even if Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to accept an extension — which he had not yet been able to do — the 90-day negotiating period would not have produced the progress on core issues that the administration originally had hoped for.
“There were different expectations on the terms of moratorium, the issues to be discussed during the moratorium, and what would happen after the moratorium expired,” said a person briefed on the decision. The administration’s abrupt decision could also fray relations with Israel. The United States had offered Mr. Netanyahu a lucrative package of security and other incentives to agree to a 90-day extension. Mr. Netanyahu could face renewed pressure from the United States and the Palestinians as the hurdle to resumed talks. Administration officials did not immediately offer a Plan B, even though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to sketch out new American proposals in a speech on Friday at the Brookings Institution".
Mark Landler, "U.S. Ends Push to Renew Israeli Freeze on Settlements," 7 December 2010, The New York Times, in www.ft.com..
"The most heartfelt hope for peace has been placed in Barack Obama. The young President offers the prospect of a clean break with the past and an early start on a more engaged and sustained policy. Underpinning the faith is a straightforward logic: Israel depends on US support; no Israeli leader will dare jeopardize good relations with Washington; if the administration plays “hard ball” while proffering “tough love,” Israel will follow. Obama’s first steps have prompted doubts. By initially insisting on a comprehensive Israeli settlement freeze, then negotiating its details, then seemingly backing down and pushing Palestinians to resume their talks with Israel, the administration increased friction with Jerusalem, squandered credibility with the Arab world, and weakened Abbas.
In this last respect, Obama is only the latest in a string of American presidents who have shown few limits to the harm they can inflict on those Palestinians they purport to strengthen. By twice twisting Abbas’s arm, first to attend a meeting with Netanyahu and then to withdraw the Goldstone report, the administration unwittingly hurt him more in the space of two weeks than its predecessor had done in as many terms. The US hope was to tame Netanyahu, empower Abbas, motivate peace advocates, curtail extremists, and energize negotiations. So far, it has accomplished the precise opposite.
Obama will have opportunities to recover. But for those who remain persuaded that the US has the power to produce a meaningful peace agreement, his record so far is hardly a good omen. It fits into a larger pattern and helps make a broader point: the absence of convincing historical evidence that a sufficient degree of American pressure can be applied to persuade an Israeli government to act against its self-perceived fundamental interests. Israelis and Palestinians have their weaknesses, but they have mastered the art of saying no or at least meaning it, and then of living to wage the next fight. Possibly, this time will be different and Obama will achieve what none of his predecessors could, but nothing in his first nine months suggests he can. To harbor that expectation would be to allow the surrender of experience to hope".
Robert Malley & Hussein Agha, "Israel & Palestine: can they start over?" 3 December 2009, The New York Review of Books, in www.nybooks.com.
As predicted in this space in the immediate aftermath of the election of the current American President and as repeated at various times since, it was against both recent history and all existing evidence to expect that the current American Administration would endeavor to seriously consider the employment of pressure to get the Israeli government of Mr. Netanyahu to commit to the settlement freeze for the West Bank, much less to offer serious concessions to make a peace settlement with the Palestinians possible. The settlement freeze having expired back in September of this year. With today's announcement being perhaps the coup de grace of any positive movement on this front for perhaps the next two years, if not longer. And, while I did have some hopes that the ultra-capable Denis Ross would be able to cobble together some type of modus vivendi that would both placate most members of Netanyahu's Cabinet and thus make possible some type of settlement freeze, it would appear that once again, even Mr. Ross's considerable negotiating talents could not cover the gap between the two sides. And of course sans a settlement freeze, there is absolutely no possibility of any forward movement in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The only possible gagne in today's announcement being that it might, just might be a very public, and yet at the same time, sotto voce lever to get Netanyahu to make enough concessions to agree to the American proposal. Admittedly this does seem to be the ultimate in faute de mieux's, if not in fact sauve qui peut, but, in the absence of which there does not appear to be even the glimmer of any possible light at the end of this particular tunnel. Which is of course not to gainsay the fact that in the best of all possible worlds, an American Administration which possessed a much greater idea of the diplomatic albatross that is the current impass in the Near East, would have ventured to employ those diplomatic weapons that Washington possesses but it seems dares not use vis-`a-vis Tel Aviv. And having employed the same, would no doubt have quickly brought the Israelis to heel. `A la the Eisenhower Administration in 1957. Failing which I for one do not expect that the Americans and the West can climb out of the muddle that we have found ourselves in consistently since 1948. Or as the greatest American diplomat of the twentieth century, George Kennan aptly put it:
"In supporting a Jewish state in Palestine we were in fact supporting the extreme objectives of political Zionism, to the detriment of overall US security interests."
George Kennan, 19 January 1948, in Anna K. Nelson, edited. The State Department Policy Planning Staff Papers, 1947-1949, Vol. II, (1983), p. 42.