But in Ramallah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas—who heads the PLO and the Fatah party—now faces what one Palestinian observer described to me as “a double whammy.” First, the United States greeted Netanyahu’s compromise as a positive step and George Mitchell said it is “more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties,” but the Palestinians instantly and vehemently rejected it. So while American officials saw the Israeli move as the basis for commencing peace negotiations, the Palestinians did not—putting them at odds with Washington. “This conditional freeze does not give Abbas the ladder he needs to climb down and resume negotiations,” an associate of his said privately. Second, Israel continues to negotiate with Hamas via a German intermediary over the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in June 2006 and held since then in Gaza. The price will be Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and if the deal goes through many Palestinians will notice that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, has the ability to spring people from Israeli jails.
Both developments—on settlements and prisoners—weaken President Abbas, who today seems less powerful and less close to Washington. It did not help that he reacted to the growing pressures by announcing he was tired of the frustrations of governing, wants to leave office, and will not run for reelection. Abbas’s office in the “Muqata” in Ramallah—an old British police station, later Arafat’s headquarters and now the site of his glassed-in mausoleum—seems increasingly the burying place of his generation’s Palestinian politics as well.
So the Obama administration’s Middle East adventures in 2009 came to a close with Netanyahu, whom the administration has never much liked or treated well, stronger politically; and Abbas, whom the administration wished to strengthen, weaker and talking of retirement. In Arab capitals the failure of the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program is understood as American weakness in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, making additional cooperation from Arab leaders on Israeli-Palestinian issues even less likely. A strongly pro-American former Israeli official shook his head as he evaluated the Obama record in 2009: “This is what happens when -arrogance and clumsiness come together.”
But who will tell the president that his judgments have been wrong and his policy is failing? Does he recognize how much bad advice he was given last year? Who among the senior figures is likely to say to this president that George Mitchell is now associated with a policy disaster or that Rahm Emanuel’s read on Israeli politics proved 180 degrees off course? Presumably no one who wishes to continue to work in the White House after that.
What will Year Two bring? The evidence suggests that the administration, now in a hole, will keep digging: All our diplomatic activity remains dedicated to getting “peace negotiations” started. “We’re going to be even more committed this year, and we’re starting this new year with that level of commitment, and we’re going to follow through and hopefully we can see this as a positive year in this long process,” Secretary Clinton said in early January. George Mitchell, building on his dubious achievements of the past year, told Charlie Rose, “We think that the negotiation should last no more than two years. . . . Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time.” The media, here and in the Middle East, tell of “letters of guarantee” that President Obama may send Abbas and Netanyahu, promising the Palestinians an agreement on borders in nine months and a full peace treaty in two years if only they will sit down and negotiate.
Thus far the Palestinians are adamantly refusing to start negotiations and abandon their demand for a construction freeze including in Jerusalem, in exchange for such promises. But if they do, they will find the promised time limits to be illusory—as all previous ones have been. And no matter who sits at what table, there will be no serious negotiations: The Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart on the core issues to reach a deal now, and the Fatah and PLO leadership (having lost the last elections to Hamas and having lost Gaza to a Hamas coup) is too weak now to negotiate compromises and sell them to the Palestinian people. If there is any form of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, moreover, as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states continue to promote, Israel will end the talks instantly.