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Obama Gets Rolled in the Holy Land

2:55 PM, Sep 23, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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In May, Hillary Clinton gave an interview with al Jazeera in which she laid out the administration's position on Israeli settlements. "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth -- any kind of settlement activity," Clinton said. By all accounts, that position accurately reflected the president's views, but such a position had never before been publicly articulated. Did the White House want to publicly demand that the Israelis halt all settlement activity -- and on al Jazeera? Probably not, but once Clinton put it out there, the White House decided to stick with it.

The result was pure ecstasy on the anti-Israel left, where the administration's demand for a settlement freeze was seen as evidence that this president would not hesitate to bring the full weight of his office to bear in extracting concessions from Israel. M.J. Rosenberg, formerly of the left-wing Israel Policy Forum and now at the partisan media watch-dog group Media Matters, went so far as to say that Obama's demand for a settlement freeze was not a "precondition" for peace talks. "Stopping the settlements is not a precondition," Rosenberg said in an opinion piece for al Jazeera back in May, "because their increase makes an agreement impossible...It is comparable only to the cessation of terror."

Yet the Palestinians interpreted the Obama administration's demand for a freeze as a reasonable precondition for talks and adopted it as their own. At the same time, the Obama administration had made no comparable demand of the Palestinians. Abbas had the Obama administration right where he wanted them -- out front and enforcing his precondition for talks while asking nothing in return.

Suddenly all that has changed. In that same piece last May, Rosenberg wrote,

Today, the Israeli government simply says that stopping settlements is impossible because doing so would bring down the Netanyahu government -- which is hardly America's problem. If the Obama administration believes that opposing settlements is a matter of principle, it must insist upon it without exception and without regard to Netanyahu's political situation.

And there's the rub. In May it seemed plausible that any serious breach in relations between Obama and Bibi could bring down the new Israeli government. Less than six months later, the Israeli political spectrum is united behind Bibi's tough approach in negotiations with Washington. This is because Obama is horrendously unpopular in Israel, with just 4 percent of Israelis under the impression that Obama is "pro-Israel." Obama's hard-line approach to Israel was in such stark contrast to his coddling of the Iranians and the Palestinians that he lost all credibility with the Israeli people.

So now Bibi has rejected Obama's very public demand for a settlement freeze and is negotiating for some compromise that will be very much tilted in his favor -- six to nine months in duration, an exception for East Jerusalem, exceptions for construction already authorized, and a written guarantee from Washington that new construction will resume if the talks break down.

Obama is rolling over -- what else can he do? -- but the Palestinians dug in their heels last week. If Obama couldn't deliver a settlement freeze as he'd demanded, then they wouldn't meet with the Israelis. And Obama hasn't delivered. So how did Obama get the Palestinians to drop this precondition -- also the administration's own precondition -- and show up for yesterday's photo-op? Ben Smith pressed this issue yesterday and here's the response he got:

Obama told the Palestinian delegation to stop insisting on a full settlement freeze as a preconditon for peace talks, a source close to the delegation told POLITICO. The source said Obama committed to provide "terms of reference" next week on future negotiations, and to continue trying to work on the settlement issue with the Israelis.

"Terms of reference"? I have a rather limited diplomatic vocabulary, but I understand that this term basically means the framework for any negotiations -- who will participate, what the agenda will be, where the talks will be held, etc. It doesn't make any sense in this context unless the administration has promised some concession in the back and forth over the terms of reference.

So what was the concession? Of course, none this really matters. Obama is talking about having talks, and when talks do get underway -- whether it is sooner or later -- Hamas won't be at the table, and the PA will not be able to speak on their behalf. Abbas can make no deals and offer no concessions without confronting Hamas first, and the Israelis can make no concessions without forcing some kind of confrontation with Iran first (Israel cannot end the occupation of the West Bank or the tight control of Gaza's borders so long as Iran stands ready to fill the vacuum). Speculating on the peace talks is a fun parlor game, but the talks themselves are, like the Obama administration, completely severed from reality.