If you want to know what the Palestinians are going to do tomorrow, just listen to what US President Barack Obama says today. In May 2009, after the first meeting in the White House between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the US leader made a comment that set the tone for the next couple of years and pretty much killed any chance of negotiations: Settlements must stop.
“Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” he declared.
The Palestinians, who until that point had never made a total settlement freeze – including in areas beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem – a condition for negotiations, heard Obama and pounced. If this was what the American president was saying, how could they ask for anything less?
Or, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said himself in a
Newsweek interview in April, “It was Obama who suggested a full
settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After
that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to
And then again in September 2010, at the UN General Assembly, Obama
addressed the Israeli- Palestinian issue just as the 10-month
Netanyahumandated settlement freeze was about to come to an end. “We
have travelled a winding road over the last 12 months, with few peaks
and many valleys,” he said.
With his distinctive soaring rhetoric, Obama declared, “The conflict
between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution. And we can
come back here next year, as we have for the last 60 years, and make
long speeches about it. We can read familiar lists of grievances. We can
table the same resolutions. We can further empower the forces of
rejectionism and hate. And we can waste more time by carrying forward an
argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child
achieve a better life.
“Or,” he went on, “we can say that this time will be different – that
this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty
politics stand in the way. This time, we will think not of ourselves,
but of the young girl in Gaza who wants to have no ceiling on her
dreams, or the young boy in Sderot who wants to sleep without the
nightmare of rocket fire.
“This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at
the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred.
This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do,
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.”
And that was it – all of a sudden September 2011 became a magic deadline for declaring a Palestinian state.
True, Netanyahu had said after meeting Abbas in Washington a few weeks
before Obama’s UN address that he believed “we should make every effort
to reach an historic compromise for peace over the coming year.” But it
wasn’t until Obama spoke of Palestine as a new member of the UN by 2011
that this date suddenly became a benchmark.
For instance, since that speech, the EU has consistently set September
as a deadline of sorts, including referring to a “framework agreement by
September 2011” in a statement released as recently as May 23 by the
heads of the EU countries – a statement notable for the degree to which
it seemed completely divorced from reality.
Does anyone really think a framework agreement is going to be reached by
that date, what with the sides not even directly speaking to each other
at this point? Still Obama said September 2011, and neither the
Europeans nor the Palestinians are going to appear less Catholic than
The Europeans put this deadline in their statements, and the
Palestinians have expressed their determination to fulfill Obama’s
prophecy in September by asking for UN recognition of a Palestinian
state – whether that recognition means anything or not, and regardless
of the consequences. Obama set the bar, and the Palestinians are not
going to lower it; rather, they will do whatever they can to jump over –
even if there is no landing pit on the other side.
And then the pattern of Obama making declarations and the Palestinians
adopting those declarations as their tactics repeated itself again last
In his State Department speech on the Middle East on May 19, a day
before Netanyahu was due in town, Obama said that “while the core issues
of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is
clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel.
“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two
states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and
Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines
with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are
established for both states.” Obama also laid out his policy toward the
sequencing of negotiations, essentially adopting the Palestinian
position by saying that the “two wrenching and emotional issues” of the
future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees should be
deferred and discussed after questions of territory and security were
With that speech, Obama struck a third time. If Obama said that the
basis of negotiations should be the 1967 lines, and that Jerusalem and
refugees should be deferred to a later date, then who were the
Palestinians to quibble? And, indeed, they did not quibble. In fact,
clutching those parameters to his breast is exactly what Palestinian
senior official Saeb Erekat did Tuesday during a speech at the Saban
Center of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
According to The Washington Post’s
Jackson Diehl, Erekat “staked out a new position” in his speech, saying
that talks would only commence if Netanyahu formally accepted Obama’s
1967-lines parameters, something Netanyahu has made abundantly clear he
has no intention of doing.
If Netanyahu “wants to be a partner he has to say it: Two states on the
1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Erekat said. “He has a choice.”
Erekat said that without that declaration, there would be no talks, and
the PA would go ahead with its UN push.
“I have no quarrel with the United States,” Erekat stated. “If Mr.
Netanyahu says he accepts the two-state solution on the 1967 lines with
agreed swaps, he’s on.”
There’s the pattern: Obama makes a declaration – one Israel cannot
accept – and it becomes the newest Palestinian prenegotiating position.
But when the Palestinians take up this position – knowing full well it
is a source of US-Israeli friction – it seems meant not to promote a
solution, butto chip away at Israeli-US government ties.
Erekat, Diehl said, “left little doubt that he was staking out a
position in response to the Obama administration’s efforts to restart
negotiations – a position that appears aimed less at advancing the
process than at deepening the discord between the Israeli and US
Erekat’s comments, moreover, come at a time when the operative
assumption in Jerusalem is, and has been for months, that Abbas has no
desire in the world to negotiate with Netanyahu.
Indicative of this assumption is a diplomatic cable that arrived in the
Foreign Ministry this week from a senior diplomatic official in
Washington who met with a senior Palestinian official stationed there.
The cable made clear that the Palestinian official believed Abbas was
intent on going to the UN in September, and that he had decided to
“abandon the process,” and had “no intention of returning to
negotiations.” The cable also said that at this point in time Abbas was
primarily concerned about his historical legacy.
What Obama does with his various declarations is give Abbas the cover to
stay away from negotiations, while blaming Israel for his own
Just as Netanyahu could not, for a variety of reasons – political and
ideological – declare another settlement moratorium, forcing Obama to
have to backtrack on that demand, it is also unlikely he will now accept
a return to negotiations based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed
upon swaps, unless some very significant “sweeteners” are thrown into
the mix: such as Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state
of the Jewish people, a formula that would imply an abandonment of the
Palestinian dream of a “right of return.”
But the chances of that happening are slim indeed. Concerned with his
legacy, Abbas is not eager to go down in the Palestinian history books
as the one who closed the door to the descendents of Palestinian
refugees “returning” to Haifa, Jaffa and Safed.
The negotiations, therefore, remain stymied, and Obama has uncovered an
uncanny ability – with his declarations – to handcuff the very
diplomatic process he is trying to push forward.