Imagine you’re a train engineer breezily driving your locomotive through the wilderness when all of a sudden you realize the track you’re on is leading straight toward a cliff.

What do you do? Do you stay on the track and hope the cliff is either not really a cliff or not that high, or do you stop the train and look for another track to get you around the abyss? That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma the US administration faced over the last few weeks when looking at the Middle East diplomatic process. And on Tuesday night, in an out-of-theordinary briefing by a US government official in a conference call with Israeli journalists, the Americans announced they were changing tracks.

The official could not say what track the US-led “peace train” was going to move onto next, only that it would be a different one. His words – short, fast and extremely vague – represented an extraordinary admission by the world’s sole superpower that its Mideast diplomatic polices had hit a dead end, and that it was time to look for something new.

“We have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations,” the official said, obviously reading from a dry, State Department-prepared text.

EVER SINCE President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in the White House in May 2009 for the first time as leaders of their respective nations, the US Mideast policy toward a two-state solution could be summed up in three words: stop the settlements. It was as if the Obama administration had internalized all those columnists in The New York Times over the last umpteen years who have simplistically reduced the Israeli-Arab conflict to a question of settlements, and concluded that if you just stop those settlements, everything falls into place.

“Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” Obama said during a press conference in the White House’s Oval Office after that first meeting with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, who showed no outward sign of astonishment by this call, was – it was revealed a few months later – taken completely by surprise, even blindsided, by Obama’s insistence on a total settlement moratorium.

No previous president had taken this position, and in the weeks leading up to the meeting with Obama, there was little sign that this would be the new administration’s position.

But it became the position. More than that, it became the cornerstone of US Mideast diplomatic policy since then.

The goal of that policy, as stated, was a negotiated settlement that would have two states – Palestine and Israel – living side by side in peace and security.

The way to get, there as determined by the Obama administration, was by stopping all settlement construction.

Stop settlement construction, and the Palestinians – who refused to talk to Netanyahu after he was elected – would come back to the negotiating table. Stop settlement construction, and the Arab world would put its shoulder to the wheel and help spark the process, even provide some confidence building measures to the Israelis, such as letting them fly through Saudi airspace on the way to Thailand.

Stop settlement construction, and the Arab world would work together with the US to stop Iran’s nuclear march. But first, of course, you had to stop building a few hundred housing units in Ariel, Gush Etzion and Beit El.

But it didn’t work. Even though this track ran against the Netanyahu government’s ideological grain and was not coordinated with it, the prime minister – very well aware of the critical importance of the US-Israeli relationship – played ball.

True, the US wanted to see a two-year total settlement freeze everywhere, including Jerusalem, and Netanyahu only gave him 10 months. But still, he did give him an unprecedented 10 months, a freeze that – while on a declarative level did not include Jerusalem – in practice also included the capital, something Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman admitted later.

And what did the freeze accomplish? The Arab world continued its adamant refusal to make even the slightest gesture.

It took the Palestinians eight months into the freeze to agree to enter direct talks, which they walked away from three weeks later.

And on Iran, the WikiLeaks disclosures showed the fallaciousness of the argument that an Israeli-Palestinian accord was critical in getting the moderate Arab world to join forces against Teheran, since cable after cable showed one “moderate” regime after the next – from Tunisia, to Jordan, to Egypt and Saudi Arabia – practically begging the US to take action against Iran, and not linking that to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

In short, the US policy was not working or, as State Department spokesman P.J.

Crowley said in a briefing Wednesday, “We had pursued the concept of a renewal of a moratorium at the behest of the Palestinian delegation, and after intensive effort we’ve come to the conclusion that at this time that’s not the best way to proceed.”

It’s not the best way to proceed because it simply didn’t lead anywhere. According to Israeli officials, after Netanyahu met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on November 11 and agreed in principle to renew the moratorium for 90 days in exchange for a package of US incentives, the US then went to the Palestinians and discovered that this would not solve the problem.

They wanted Jerusalem to be included in the freeze, Israel refused. The Palestinians wanted the border issue to be resolved in 90 days, Israel said it was impossible to isolate the borders from issues such as demilitarization and a future Israeli presence on the Jordan River, and that these issues could not be worked out in such a short time.

REALIZING THE gaps were too wide, and fearing a breakdown of the talks after the termination of the next moratorium, the administration, as Crowley said in an understatement, decided to “shift gears.”

But, he stressed, “the position on settlements has not and will not change. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position.”

Express that position, yes; make it the centerpiece of the whole process, probably not.

Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the outgoing chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, was blunter.

Ackerman, a staunch Israel supporter but also someone who in February 2009 decried “settlement pogroms,” “declarations that dirt and stones mean more than human life” and “digging in Jerusalem,” issued a statement very sharp in its criticism of the administration’s policies. He said he hoped the recent decision represented a “strategic shift” in its approach to the Middle East.

“The shift of effort away from the settlements issue, which was and is truly tangential to the future of the region, creates an opportunity to focus on the singular, totally consuming issue in the Middle East, namely stopping Iran’s determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is, as the WikiLeaks drama has made clear, the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not only critical to the United States and Israel, but is also genuinely the most important existential threat to the Sunni Arab governments as well. It’s time to stop pretending that anything comes close to the Iran nuclear issue in terms of importance, priority, or potential consequences for failure.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu was right. We tried going the settlements route and got nothing except Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] stuck up a tree trying to figure out how he can afford to be less Palestinian than the president of the United States. It’s time for Abu Mazen to climb down from his tree and get into the direct talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu that are the Palestinians’ only real chance to achieve their legitimate aspirations.”

And this from a Democratic congressman who up until the summer was reticent to publicly criticize Obama’s Middle East policies.

THE QUESTION now, of course, is what’s next? What will the new diplomatic “avenue,” as Crowley termed it, look like? Senior Israeli officials asked about this were very sparse with the details, likely because they don’t know, and because the contours of this new track – beyond getting Israeli and Palestinian representatives to talk separately with the US about core issues, in the hope that this will create a momentum that will catapult the sides into direct talks – have not been finalized.

While it is being worked out, Israel is likely to place an emphasis on what Netanyahu has in the past called the bottom- up approach to peacemaking, the idea that peace can be achieved not only through political negotiations at the top, but also through economic and security cooperation from the “bottom up” that creates economic and security benefits that people can actually feel on the ground.

So it was not entirely coincidental that a day after the US announced the end of its current path, Israel announced that it was easing restrictions on exports from Gaza.

The more the leaders are seen to be grappling in the dark, the greater the likelihood that there will be more gestures of this sort to ensure that people on the ground see some light. Not in the anticipation that this will necessarily lead to a peace accord, but to ensure that while a new track is being built, not everything looks black.

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