WASHINGTON – When US Middle East envoy George Mitchell took to the podium to
brief the press during the first day of direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations
on Thursday, he began by saying that he would not be very forthcoming with the
He made good on his warning a few minutes later when a CBS News
reporter began a question by asking whether the two sides had discussed the
issue of settlements.
“As I said at the outset, what I will be able to
disclose to you... will be limited,” Mitchell responded. “And so you’ve given me
the first opportunity to invoke that principle with respect to the first part of
your question, for which I thank you.”
Though his response was more
elaborate – and humorous – than most on the subject, it was only the latest in a
recent string of responses from American officials avoiding discussing
settlements or even using the term.
David Makovsky of the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy described the reticence as partly an effort to
keep the highly scripted launch of negotiations on track without any
controversial comments that “could rain on the parade.” According to Makovsky,
“Nobody wanted anything that would be stated publicly to mar the occasion and
remind [people] why they were so skeptical.”
That approach, however,
stands in marked contrast to the emphasis – often publicly and at the highest
levels – that the Obama administration once put on settlements in its bid to
restart the negotiating process.
As Mitchell himself announced a few
months after taking office in 2009, “Our focus right now is to create the
context for the resumption and early conclusion of meaningful negotiations. To
help achieve this, we’re asking all parties to take meaningful steps. For the
Israelis, that means a stop to settlements.”
That point was reiterated –
and clarified by top White House and State Department officials to include east
Jerusalem and natural growth – repeatedly through March, when settlement policy
led to one of the most serious breaches between the US and Israel in years. When
construction in Ramat Shlomo was approved as Vice President Joe Biden arrived
for what was supposed to be a goodwill tour, he ended up condemning Israel’s
settlement policy during his marquee speech to the Israeli public.
officials are now going to lengths to stay mum on the topic seems a tacit
acknowledgement that the previous public proclamations didn’t achieve their aim.
As Makovsky succinctly put it, “They think it didn’t get
Indeed, though the idea was to get quickly to peace talks –
originally slated to take off a year ago – the public emphasis on s e t t l e m
e n t s was seen by many as making it more difficult for both Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to
The Israeli public lost faith in US support with its public
criticism of policies that had traditionally been dealt with more discreetly,
particularly when it involved neighborhoods in Jerusalem and settlement blocs
long understood to remain within Israel in any peace deal. Abbas, for his part,
made a settlement freeze a precondition for talks though it had never before
been one; he told one interviewer that he couldn’t accept less than the
Americans were requiring.
Biden, in fact, had been dispatched to
Jerusalem to sooth just those tensions when his trip ended up sparking an even
bigger crisis between the two countries. Congress and the American Jewish
community began to loudly voice their displeasure. One of the points many made
in the aftermath was that this issue was best dealt with behind closed
“The administration should make a conscious effort to move away
from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel,” an American
Israel Public Affairs Committee statement stressed. “We strongly urge the
administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel.”
the end, Netanyahu only agreed to a 10-month moratorium on construction that
didn’t include east Jerusalem. It is set to end on September 26.
issue now looms as one that could rupture talks that have only just begun.
Abbas, facing public criticism over his participation in negotiations, has
threatened to walk out if the moratorium isn’t extended.
Netanyahu, in a
coalition dominated by right-wing politicians, has already stated that his
government hasn’t changed its position.
So the administration has been
urgently consulting with both sides on ways to bridge the divide, whether
through additional gestures to the Palestinians, extending the freeze in some
areas but not others or discouraging any change on the ground regardless of the
ONE CONSTANT has been the silent nature of these
“There’s no doubt that the tone of the administration
through March of this year stands in sharp contrast to where they are today. Now
their goal is to have a successful negotiation,” Makovsky said. When it comes to
dealing with settlements in that context, “the way to do that is work it quietly
and behind the scenes.”
American officials understand that domestic
politics are at play for both audiences and that forcing Netanyahu to make
public declarations on settlements could only further inflame the opposition of
those on the Right. Raising the profile could force him to take a more strident
public line, which would in turn make Abbas less able to back down.
working the situation quietly, they can give both leaders more space to
Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator
and author of The Much Too Promised Land, referred to the current approach as “a
variant of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Miller, though, pointed out that there’s
another “paradoxical” reason why the rhetoric on settlements has changed: Now
that peace talks have started, the Americans care less about them.
described US officials as extremely focused on settlements before talks began
because they saw them as destructive to the atmosphere of trust between the two
sides the US wants to foster.
But once talks began, settlements become
just another issue to be negotiated.
The focus becomes staying at the
table rather than making moves outside the process, because ultimately it’s only
at the table that settlements will be resolved.
“They will essentially
accommodate them because the object is basically to end the conflict and deal
with the settlement issue comprehensively,” he said.
Miller said that
means the message the US is conveying to the Palestinians for now is: “Suck it
up and stay at the table.”