Obama in Ramallah: Taking the Israeli Line

At a news conference in Ramallah Thursday morning, President Obama appeared to move closer to Israel on two key points.

First, he did not call Israeli settlement activity “illegitimate,” which was his administration’’s previous position. Rather, he said it was unhelpful, a far softer line that is much easier for Israelis to swallow.

Second, he completely undercut the Palestinians’ argument that they can’t come to the bargaining table because of continuing Israeli settlement activity. Obama seemed clearly to be calling for unconditional negotiations, though he did not use the word specifically. He explained to Palestinians that one can’t ask for the fruits of negotiations before they even start.

This tilt toward the Israeli view may be smaller than it appears if, behind closed doors, Obama is pushing the Netanyahu government toward some sort of construction freeze. But Obama’s comments appeared to me to reflect an understanding that the Palestinian demand for a complete freeze on new settlement, including even in Jerusalem, will make talks impossible. So his comments in Ramallah represent a new position for his administration and a rejection of the previous approach — and an abandonment of his obsession with settlements — associated with the administration’s former special envoy, George Mitchell.

Yet Obama seemed dubious about whether negotiations would proceed, or get anywhere if they did begin. He said his new secretary of state, John Kerry, would devote time and energy to this, but missing entirely was any promise that he himself would be much involved.

We’ll see what Obama says about it all in his big speech in Jerusalem today. But my guess is that he views cooperation with Israel on Iran and Syria as the big issues, and has decided to stop frittering away good relations with the country over the settlement issue. He is buying the Israeli view that, in today’s Middle East, settlements are a side show.

Elliott Abrams — Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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