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
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
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.
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, 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
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
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
The way to get, there as determined by the Obama
administration, was by stopping all settlement construction.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
“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.
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
And this from a Democratic congressman who up
until the summer was reticent to publicly criticize Obama’s Middle East
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
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.