When I visited Israel in late October, not long before the latest visits of U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israelis of all political hues confessed that they were amazed, perplexed, and confused by the policy those two diplomats and President Obama are following.
First came an instant attitude of hostility on the part of the Obama administration toward Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, even before he had taken office on March 31 and despite his efforts to create a centrist coalition. Second came its obsession with a “settlement freeze,” which in fact was a demand for something that no Israeli prime minister of any party could possibly agree to — a complete and immediate freeze on construction not only in every settlement (including those Israel will obviously keep in any final-status agreement) but also in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Third came the demand that Arab states reach out to Israel, a demand that the president himself delivered to the king of Saudi Arabia in a visit there in June and that, predictably, was rejected immediately.
Fourth came the administration’s handling of the Palestinian leadership, which it pulled out onto the “settlement freeze” limb — for how could any Palestinian leader be less insistent on a total freeze than the Americans were? This meant that when the Obama team faced reality and dropped the freeze demand in favor of a call for “restraint,” the Palestinians out on that limb were simply sawed off. Later, when American diplomats prevailed upon the Palestinian leadership not to ask the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve the Goldstone Report on Israeli conduct during the Gaza War, they added insult to injury. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas seems to have accepted U.S. demands and instructed his delegation at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to cool it, a move that won him unprecedented unpopularity at home. He should have said no and simply told the U.S. to veto anything that arose in the Security Council, but the U.S. should not have pushed him.
That the administration did so suggests a powerful American desire to avoid a veto, presumably because such actions are so “Cold War,” so “George Bush” — and far out of line with the new Obama era of global engagement and multilateral action. So frustrated has Abbas become with all this that he has announced he won’t run for reelection in the planned PA voting on January 24. While he may well change his mind, and the election itself is likely to be postponed, the announcement is properly understood as his own protest vote against administration policy. Weakened by the Clinton and Mitchell maneuvers, he has about as much enthusiasm for Obama’s handling of the Middle East as Bibi Netanyahu.
The net result of the administration’s approach is a massive policy failure. The Obama administration has weakened the Palestinian leadership it meant to strengthen, weakened the alliance with Israel by its hostility to Israel’s government, weakened its own reputation in Arab capitals for strength and reliability, and painted itself into a policy corner. For where does it go now?
It is still possible that Mitchell, who ought to resign or be fired on account of his gross misreading of the situation in the region, will get Netanyahu to sign some sort of construction moratorium. But we know the conditions: It will not apply to Jerusalem, it will be time-limited, it will permit construction of about 2,500 new units in various stages of preparation, and it will not apply to needed public buildings like clinics or schools. The Palestinian leadership will immediately denounce such a deal, which is not what they thought Mitchell and Obama were demanding. They will not agree to commence peace negotiations on such a basis; indeed, on October 31, Abbas so stated when he met with Secretary Clinton in Abu Dhabi. And if they did start such negotiations, which is the fervent desire of the Obama administration, nothing could possibly come of them right now. Abbas is too weak (partly thanks to us) and too close to elections (called for January, though few believe they’ll actually take place then) to undertake serious negotiations at the moment. And remember: Last year, Israel’s then–prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made Abbas a peace offer that was so generous it probably couldn’t have carried in Olmert’s own cabinet. Abbas turned that one down, so it’s hard to believe that anything Netanyahu offers now might be acceptable to the Palestinians.