The Obama administration, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have concluded in the last few days, is deferring its hitherto intensive efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement until after this November’s US presidential elections, at the earliest.
While it is unlikely that the administration will formally acknowledge the shift, Israeli and Palestinian officials, atypically, speak with one voice in setting out this assessment, and it was only reinforced by last week’s phone conversation between US President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
This represents a striking change in focus for the administration. Obama told the UN General Assembly in September 2010 that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Only last May, similarly, in an address at the State Department, the president robustly rejected the notion that the time was not ripe to seek progress.
Reports in the Hebrew press highlighted Obama’s failed effort in last Monday’s phone call — the first direct contact between the two leaders in months — to talk Abbas out of sending a bitter letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the near future. Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel that Abbas has every intention of sending the letter, which will blame Netanyahu for the deadlock in negotiations, set out Palestinian demands for their resumption — including a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of adjusted pre-1967 lines as the basis for a Palestinian state — and potentially include mention of unilateral Palestinian actions should those demands be rejected.
But the wider significance of the phone call, both Israeli and Palestinian officials say, was that it underlined the shift away from the administration’s hitherto heavy focus on brokering progress. The administration will remain engaged, the two sides understand, and it remains concerned at the potential for frictions on the ground to spiral out of control. But it has internalized that the gulf between the sides, and the complex realities in the region — with Arab states in ferment and Iran closing in on the bomb – mean substantive progress is highly improbable.
The White House press secretary put out a “readout” of the Obama-Abbas telephone conversation which did little to suggest a sense of urgency. The two leaders, the short statement said in its concluding sentences, “discussed the ongoing need to build trust between the parties and for all sides to refrain from provocative actions that make it more difficult to build such trust. They agreed to remain in close contact about these important issues.”
If he is re-elected in November, Obama may still not feel that he is in a position to use maximal leverage to seek progress, both sides further recognize; the post-election political realities may require greater compromise in all areas with the Republicans, who will be averse to heavy pressure on Israel. Thus, say officials on both sides, a new Obama-led push toward an accommodation — and toward a Palestinian state based on the parameters he set out in that State Department speech — may not be feasible until the second half of a second Obama term. And, they add, who knows how circumstances in the region will have changed by then?
In separate conversations, Israeli and Palestinian officials sometimes unwittingly use identical formulations to describe the problem, claiming that “sadly, it’s clear that” Abbas/Netanyahu “is not ready to adopt the positions that will put an end to this conflict. We’ve made clear that we are ready, but he is not.”
Unsurprisingly, the Israeli and Palestinian sides, in their contacts with the administration, blame each other for the deadlock. In contacts with The Times of Israel, each also insisted that it is the other’s intransigence that has convinced Obama there is nothing to be gained by pushing hard for a breakthrough now.
Both sides claim that they are ready to work hard for an accommodation, but that the other is not. In separate conversations on the issue, Israeli and Palestinian officials sometimes unwittingly use identical formulations to describe the problem, claiming that “sadly, it’s clear that” Abbas/Netanyahu “is not ready to adopt the positions that will put an end to this conflict. We’ve made clear that we are ready, but he is not.”
A Palestinian source, insisting that Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate on the basis of the pre-1967 lines and to freeze all building over the pre-1967 green line had doomed all prospects of progress, told The Times of Israel that Obama “can’t exert any pressure on Netanyahu before the elections. He needs the Jewish vote. He doesn’t want to upset anybody.”
Sources close to the Israeli leadership, by contrast, cited Abbas’s endorsement of efforts at unification between Fatah and Hamas, and his bid to secure unilateral UN backing for Palestinian statehood, as among the key factors that have stymied the chances of substantive progress.
Obama sounded undaunted by these and other familiar difficulties and recriminations less than a year ago. “There are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now,” he said in his State Department speech. “I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever… Endless delay won’t make the problem go away.”
By September, however, when he addressed the UN General Assembly against the backdrop of Abbas’s bid for UN endorsement of statehood, the president’s tone had changed somewhat. “One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine, he recalled. “One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences… Now, I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I. But the question isn’t the goal that we seek — the question is how do we reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades.”
And the change in emphasis was still more publicly evident when Obama hosted Netanyahu this month. The president dealt only briefly with the Palestinian issue in an address to the AIPAC lobby on March 4, instead focusing overwhelmingly on thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive. More tellingly, in remarks to the press alongside Netanyahu in the Oval Office the next day, Obama acknowledged the complexity of dealing with the Palestinian issue at present.
Obama said he and the prime minister would examine “how we can, potentially, bring about a calmer set of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians and arrive at a peaceful resolution to that longstanding conflict.” But, the president immediately added, “It is a very difficult thing to do in light of the context right now.”
Again using similar formulations, Israeli and Palestinian officials say they are prepared to negotiate on the basis of the principles Obama set out in the State Department address — direct talks on the basis of “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” and with Israel’s basic security needs met, including the Israeli right “to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” The principles further provided for the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugee claims to be addressed at a later stage.
Yet recent contacts between Israel and the Palestinians, including talks in Jordan where Yitzhak Molcho represented Netanyahu, foundered completely.
Palestinian officials say Abbas had submitted to Netanyahu detailed maps of a proposed territorial accommodation in the West Bank. At first, they say, the prime minister did not respond. When he did, they say, he stated that Israel would seek a presence in the Jordan Valley for the next 40 years, and would also seek to retain control of high ground throughout the West Bank.
Abbas defended himself against criticism of the Fatah-Hamas unification process by claiming that he needed to be seen by his people to be fostering internal unity ahead of Palestinian elections, and by stating that all ministers in a unity government’s cabinet of technocrats would need to formally commit to the international conditions: recognition of Israel, abandonment of terrorism and respect for previous agreements. (The unification process now seems hopelessly stalled, with Hamas riven by internal divisions.)
Rather than seeking a declaration from Israel that it was freezing building in the settlements, the Palestinian officials add, Abbas sought a “silent freeze” – whereby Israel would in fact stop building but would not publicly declare this. Netanyahu rejected this demand, they say.
So incompatible were Netanyahu’s positions with Abbas’s, The Times of Israel was told, that Abbas has taken to remarking bitterly that perhaps the Palestinians are “better off with the occupation.”
In Netanyahu’s circle, by contrast, it is asserted that “the only thing that’s changed in the proposals put forward by the Palestinians in the past 10 years is the date at the top of the front page.” Palestinian positions take no account of Israel’s changing security needs in a region plunged into instability, and in the wake of rocket wars that have followed Israel’s withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza.
Abbas, it is claimed, “piles on the preconditions” because he’s not actually seeking an end-of-conflict accord. And the Palestinian description of Netanyahu’s stance regarding the Jordan Valley, say those around the prime minister, is inaccurate.
Netanyahu, it is further noted in the prime minister’s circle, sent an IDF general to set out Israel’s security concerns for the Palestinians at the Jordanian-hosted talks, but the Palestinians refused to listen to him.
As for the prospect of receiving a document from Abbas in the next few days setting out demands and possible courses of unilateral action, those around the prime minister seem supremely unconcerned. The Abbas “love letter,” some of them call it.