US official: Obama blames settlements for failed talks

President still sees time in his term for peace push, NY Times reports, but wants the initiative to come from the parties themselves

US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Earlier this month, anonymous American officials personally involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — special envoy Martin Indyk presumed to have been among them — provided a harsh assessment to a respected Israeli journalist of why negotiations failed, highlighting Israel’s continued settlement construction as the issue “largely to blame.”

A senior Obama administration official told The New York Times on Thursday, however, that the assessment may as well have been provided by the US president himself. The official claimed that the White House had “cleared the interview” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea, and that “the critical remarks faithfully reflect the president’s own views.”

The unnamed senior official said that Obama believes, more than any other factor, that Israeli announcements of construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem throughout the nine months of talks led to the negotiations’ collapse.

“At every juncture, there was a settlement announcement,” said the official. “It was the thing that kept throwing a wrench in the gears.”

According to the Times report, “it is unlikely that Mr. Obama will lay down principles for resolving the conflict, as he did in May 2011 after his last major effort to forge a peace agreement deal foundered. At that time, he proposed a formula for negotiating the borders of a new Palestinian state.”

Following the abrupt end to the negotiations, and with both sides blaming each other, the US president has instead decided to take a break from the peace process, focusing his administration’s attention elsewhere, the official said, “to let the failure of the talks sink in for both parties, and see if that causes them to reconsider.”

The Obama administration wants to make clear to all sides that “they have a door that’s open,” he said. “If they want to walk through that door, we’ll be there to work with them.”

According to the official, the US president believes that there is still time for another peace push before he leaves office, but Obama is determined to wait for the Israelis and Palestinians to approach Washington with ideas of their own for reviving the process.

In their anonymous comments to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Barnea, US officials indicated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had completely given up on the prospect of a negotiated solution, and they warned Israel that the Palestinians would achieve statehood come what may — either via international organizations or through violence.

The officials claimed that Obama had been prepared to release spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard to salvage peace talks. And they warned that “the world will not keep tolerating the Israeli occupation.”

The Americans said they had intended to begin the nine-month negotiating period with an Israeli announcement of a settlement freeze. But this proved impossible, an American official was quoted saying, “because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up… We didn’t realize [that] continuing construction allowed ministers in [Netanyahu’s] government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks. There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth: the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.

“At this point, it’s very hard to see how the negotiations could be renewed, let alone lead to an agreement,” the Americans continued. “Towards the end, Abbas demanded a three-month freeze on settlement construction. His working assumption was that if an accord is reached, Israel could build along the new border as it pleases. But the Israelis said no.”

The New York Times report on Thursday indicated that Obama realized the degree of the impasse in negotiations after a March meeting with Abbas in Washington.

In that meeting, the US president attempted to convince the Palestinian leader to agree to principles in Secretary of State John Kerry’s unpublished framework agreement. Abbas did not respond, and instead chose to reiterate his rejection of Israel’s demand to be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state.

“The president was skeptical about a deal after that meeting,” the senior official said. “Abbas was more comfortable pivoting to public grievance than focusing on a private negotiation.”

Kerry has yet to decide whether to make public the principles he incorporated into his framework accord.

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