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September 22, 2009
Obama changes course on Mideast
President Obama's summit sessions in New York with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu mark a sharp turn in the White House's involvement in the peace process.
From Obama's earlier insistence on a complete construction freeze in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, he now has changed his priorities and wants, more than anything else, early resumption of negotiations "without pre-conditions." In contrast to Hillary Clinton's previous insistence that the administration would not budge from demanding a total freeze without exceptions, Obama now advocates as his first objective direct negotiations "without pre-conditions," which puts him in sync with Netanyahu's own priorities. And Obama has ended all talk about 100 percent Israeli acceptance of his demands.
Obama made it clear to one and all, especially Abbas, who has refused to restart talks until and unless Israel cries "uncle" on settlements, that forget the last eight months -- the United States now is impatient to get going on negotiations -- never mind any hangups on settlements or other issues. Or as Obama put it, "The time for talking about starting negotiations it past." Move on!
What happened to change Obama's course?
The president and his Mideast envoy George Mitchell realized that they initially embarked on a dead-end detour from which they're just now beginning to try and extricate themselves.
When Obama took office and after Netanyahu succeeded Ehud Olmert, the president could have continued what the Bush administration had begun nearly two years ago under the Annapolis approach -- direct Israeli-Palestinian final-status talks between the top two leaderships. In those talks, Abbas did not insist on first getting major Israeli concessions before agreeing to meet frequently with Olmert.
But Obama, ever confident that he has better ideas than his predecessor, decided instead to push as his first priority confidence-building moves to create proper "conditions" for eventual talks -- putting most of his eggs in the Israel-must-go-first basket. In turn, this bolstered Abbas's confidence that he could insist on a total, permanent Israeli settlement construction freeze as a pre-condition to re-launching peace talks. Abbas even boasted that didn't have to reciprocate because Obama would deliver a compliant Israel.
It didn't work. Netanyahu, with his Bar-Ilan University speech, agreed to accept a two-state solution hammered out between the parties and then offered a temporary, limited building moratorium in West Bank settlements, while telling Team Obama to keep their hands off Jerusalem, Israel's united capital.
But with Obama leaning on Bibi to bend first, the prospect of direct, bilateral negotiations went out the window. The entire process came to a standstill. And Obama had nothing to show for his new way of achieving peace in the Middle East. Just the opposite. Netanyahu drew support across almost the entire Israeli political spectrum for not bowing to White House pressures. And polls showed that Obama was viewed as "pro-Israel" by only 4 percent of Israelis. And some -- a few -- Jewish leaders in the U.S. began to shake White House confidence that Obama could hang on to his 78 percent Jewish-voter support the nex time around.
So Mitchell, to make his boss's turnabout seem that it's really not a turnabout, valiantly tells reporters in New York that the administration never, never stipulated that any issue, including settlements, was an obstacle or pre-condition for resuming direct peace negotiations. Judging from the text of Mitchell's press briefing, reporters didn't buy it and saw it for what it was -- an embrace of the previous administration's push to encourage negotiations without getting bogged down in lower-priority side issues.
With Israeli and Palestinian negotiators due to travel to Washington to develop modalities for resumption of high-level talks. the ball now is in Abbas's court. Obama has taken the monkey off Netanyahu's back and put it on Abbas's back. It's the Palestinian leader who now must scrap his insistence on Israeli concessions as a pre-condition for talks, which he had assumed tallied with Obama's desires. Now, Obama -- by changing diplomatic tactics -- has left Abbas twisting slowly in the wind.
If Abbas follows the new U.S. playbook, he'll look like a patsy not only to Hamas in Gaza but to most Palestinians in the West Bank. But if he balks, he will no longer have Obama in his corner and he'll be left boxed-in -- with no prospect for U.S.-brokered Palestinian statehood.
It's a tough predicament for Abbas, for which Obama is entirely responsible.
Time need not have been wasted.