Middle East Negotiations: When Will Obama Ever Learn?
As the months go by without resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, it's fair to ask who has been the greatest obstacle to get things back on track.
Has it been Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu? No. Has it been Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? No.
The biggest impediment has been President Obama. Instead of pressing both sides to return to the table without pre-conditions, Obama instead has seen fit to lay out various pre-conditions for resumption of talks.
First, before talks could even begin, he insisted that Israel institute a construction freeze in East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements. No such unilateral condition had ever been asked of Israel in connection with prior peace negotiations. Netanyahu, to mollify Obama, agreed on a 10-month freeze. But this was not enough for Abbas, who, taking his cue from Obama, insisted on a permanent freeze. Predictably, Bibi refused to go along and Obama's intervention went nowhere. Abbas was furious with Obama for having taken him on a ride to nowhere.
Instead of drawing the proper conclusion from this debacle -- that insistence on one-sided Israeli concessions prior to negotiations was futile -- Obama pressed on with a new set of one-sided demands this year, betting that this remained the path to peace talks. This time, he demanded that the talks be based on Israeli retreat from the 1967 armistice line, with some land swaps -- a formula that drew an immediate angry response from Netanyahu, who called the 1967 lines "indefensible," since they would make Israel's heartland completely vulnerable to future Arab attacks. Remember that the 1967 lines, even with unspecified land swaps, would mean a near-total Israel retreat from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Abbas again was delighted. He embraced Obama's formulation as in sync with his own demands for a total Israeli retreat to the 1967 lines.
However, Obama again hadn't thought through the full implications of his one-sided pre-negotiation pressures on Israel. Faced with Bibi's refusal, the president sought to clarify his formula to make it a bit more palatable to Israel, stressing that the 1967 lines definitely would not constitute Israel's permanent eastern border.
In the meantime, the other members of the international Quartet of peace brokers -- the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia-- welcomed Obama's approach. Moscow, dating back to Soviet times, again tilted toward the Palestinians. Ditto the UN and the EU. Obama's strategy suited them just fine.
Thus, despite the proven failure of Obama's peacemaking strategy, he made pre-conditions to talks fashionable among world statesmen. The Obama-inspired mantra was that there had to be points of reference, a pre-distilled framework pointing to the outcome, negotiating parameters of various kinds before talks could safely be set in motion.
For his part, Obama still hasn't given up on his misbegotten tactics. For the last several weeks, the White House has been in intense negotiations with Israel to reframe Obama' s formula for talks so as to make any reference to 1967 more digestible in Israel. The latest twist, announced by Bibi in testimony to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, is that Washington and Jerusalem have reached agreement on a new formulation that clearly spells out that Israel would not have to retreat from big settlement blocs in the West Bank, like Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim. There would be a formal understanding that final borders would reflect "new realities" on the ground -- the kind of assurance that George W. Bush gave to Ariel Sharon, which until now Obama was loath to endorse.
But while Bibi may be satisfied, Abbas certainly won't be. Not only would he have to swallow that a majority of West Bank settlers would remain under Israeli sovereignty, he also would have to recognize another pre-condition -- recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a definite deal-breaker for Abbas because it would rule out a "right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Having tilted toward the Palestinians at the start of his administration, Obama is changing course and tilting more toward Israel now that his 2012 reelection campaign is about to swing into full gear.
What is mind-boggling about all these guaranteed-to-fail Obama "solutions" is that he yet has to figure out a totally different course that might have managed to kick-start negotiations -- for the U.S. and other members of the Quartet to simply demand resumption of negotiations with no preconditions whatsoever. And to put a stop to all the external kibbitzing by Obama and his Quartet partners.
After all, absence of outside intervention marked successful negotiations that led to Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively, left matters to the parties and were only too happy to bless the results once the actual negotiating was done.
Obama, however, with his hubris and lack of historical knowledge and curiosity, thinks that he's the indispensable mediator without whom nothing can be accomplished.
The real world, however, doesn't work that way.
Of course, even if Obama had the good sense to get out of the way, and Bibi and Abbas managed to hammer out a peace deal, there still would remain another huge obstacle to ending the conflict -- Hamas rule over Gaza.
Hamas is totally opposed to a two-state solution. It wants a single Palestinian state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Nothing less. And it has Abbas cowed not to make any real compromises.
An Israel deal with the Palestinian Authority, which can deliver only the West Bank, still would have been an important coup. But it wouldn't have advanced real progress toward peace, while Hamas, an Iranian surrogate, is in charge of half of "Palestine."
The reality is that the stars are far from aligned to crown any real peacemaking with complete success. A humbling factor Obama has yet to absorb.