Last weekend, Yediot Aharonot, the newspaper upon which Israelis rely more than any other for their news, published an article setting out what it called the "absolute basis" for security logistics between Israel and a new Palestine.
The piece contained specifics on how Israelis and Palestinians will traverse the roads of the West Bank, details of entry into the Old City, precise delineation of the demilitarization constraints that will be imposed upon "Palestine," information on international troop deployments along the Jordan border, descriptions of Israeli early warning stations that will be maintained inside Palestinian territory, and much more.
The writer acknowledged that all this intricate detail was actually drawn from the "security appendix" of the Geneva Initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace (promoted by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabo and numerous others). But he insisted nonetheless that it constituted the security foundation for President Barack Obama's envisioned Middle East peace, and asserted that its every clause had been examined in rigorous detail by the White House, the Pentagon and foreign ministries everywhere from Jordan and Egypt to France and Great Britain.
Sensationally headlined, "Everything is already prepared, just sign," with a picture of a fountain pen provided for helpful illustration, the report was the latest in a series of "scoops" in that newspaper and others, filling in the purported details of the new president's apparently massively developed Israeli-Palestinian peace blueprint.
But while it made for fascinating reading, it was profoundly misleading - a product of overheated journalism, of two and two being put together to make considerably more than four, of a non-official, non-mainstream organization's suggestions being misrepresented as the inevitable policy of the key Middle East peace mediator.
In truth, there is no clause-by-clause Obama peace plan. The president may be determined, like so many of his predecessors, to bring an end to decades of Israeli-Arab conflict. He and his senior staff, a remarkable number of whom found themselves in Israel this week, may even be investing more time and energy in this effort than did most of their predecessors. But he is not so foolish as to believe that he can impose the terms of a solution on Israel and its neighbors - not for the time being, at least.
An increasing body of Israeli opinion holds that the Obama administration is foolish, nonetheless, or worse - that it has gone over the top in its focus on a stringent settlement freeze, alienating the Israeli mainstream, dissipating any pressure on the Palestinians to compromise and thus undermining its own good peacemaking intentions. And there are those in the administration who would probably acknowledge that certain public statements - notably Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's disavowal of Ariel Sharon-George W. Bush era guidelines enabling limited settlement building within defined parameters - would have been better left unspoken.
But the Americans plainly believe that pressure was necessary to shift Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's initial opposition to a two-state solution, that pressure brought about his surprisingly warm remarks last week about the conciliatory "spirit" of the hitherto Likud-rejected Arab League peace initiative, and that pressure will ultimately yield a compromise on the terms of a settlement "freeze" far more marketable to the Arab world than could have been achieved in the absence of any Washington-Jerusalem friction.
The question, however, is whether such pressure as the United States is applying at the other side of the divide - to the Palestinians and the wider Arab world - is having, or will have, a similar effect. And it is here, most critically, that Israel and the US are most fundamentally at odds.
Israel, even under Netanyahu, now plainly recognizes that the status quo is not in its interest. Israel, remarkably even under Netanyahu, is now committed to a two-state vision, and ready to drastically rein in settlement-building to try to create a better climate for the realization of that vision.
But still, simply put, the Americans believe Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority can ultimately be persuaded to adopt and implement viable terms for a lasting, stable Israeli-Palestinian peace. And the Israelis, burned by years of experience and casting around in vain for indications that the Palestinians now truly acknowledge Israel's legitimacy and the need for compromise, do not.
SINCE TAKING office, the Obama administration might be regarded as having acted like the school principal who walks out into the playground to confront two squabbling students, grabs each by the ear and drags them off toward his office. The Israeli kid, protesting his innocence, has struggled and screamed the whole way, complaining about the unfairness of it all. In the American conception, the Palestinian kid has come quietly. In the Israeli conception, the Palestinian kid has slipped off, denying all blame and responsibility, and getting away with it.
To use more common peacemaking terminology, the Obama administration believes that it inherited a process that wasn't working, and that far from being able to summon the sides to the negotiating table, and once there to chivvy them toward a deal, it came into office lacking so much as the table. Its efforts to date have been directed at constructing it - at building its three legs: Getting Israel to freeze settlement and encourage conditions in which the Palestinian West Bank economy can thrive; getting the Palestinians to tackle anti-Israeli incitement and to bolster their security capabilities; and getting the Arab world to quickly begin normalizing relations with Israel - in order to reassure Israel and to foster an environment conducive to Palestinian compromise.
The Israeli leg has been fairly solidly built - via a very public battle to find a formula on the settlements, and via a far more straightforward partnership with a willing Netanyahu to ease freedom of movement for Palestinians and approve a variety of measures that are producing tangible improvements in day-to-day life in the West Bank.
The Palestinian leg is considerably shakier: PA security personnel, trained under the supervision of American general Keith Dayton, are gradually taking on more responsibility, but are certainly not a dependable anti-terror force. And next week's scheduled Fatah conference, rather than constituting an unprecedented exercise in conciliatory speechmaking, is likely to produce new lows of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Give or take the occasional op-ed article or sympathetic oration by one of the more marginal players, the Arab world leg is conspicuous by its absence to date, though the expectation is that this will soon change. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the US-targeted pack, is insistently refusing to soften its hostile stance on Israel - to Washington's abiding dismay. And the administration is therefore now reduced to trying to secure a range of steps toward normalization from a range of Arab players, in which the traditionally moderate states will take the lead, and the traditionally uncompromising states will remain, well, uncompromising.
The US aim, when what is deemed sufficient progress has been made, is to gather the various players at a much ballyhooed international event around the newly built table, and formally launch the Obama administration's bid for comprehensive Middle East peace. Some in the administration believe that the carpentry is now almost done. The US hope is that the launch event may be feasible not within months, but within weeks.
The goal, from then on, will be to foster intensive bilateral negotiations toward a permanent solution. A potentially helpful blueprint: the proposals put forward by Bill Clinton in the dying months of his presidency that are deemed to have widely shaped the perceptions of an Israeli-Palestinian accord. The anticipated timetable: about two years. At first, at least, as Israeli officials made clear to The Jerusalem Post this week, there would be no US attempt to impose terms. Though that day may come...
When a presidential visit to Israel might fit into this sequence is undetermined at present. The administration is dismayed by Obama's low standing here - as evidenced, especially, in a recent Jerusalem Post poll which showed only 6 percent of Israeli Jews now consider his presidency to be pro-Israel. And it knows that a visit under propitious circumstances would likely bolster his standing. Nonetheless, and again contrary to all manner of reports in the Hebrew media, no such visit has been planned. Obama does intend to come, possibly this year and possibly not, but the trip will be a function of negotiating progress and of scheduling.
NOTWITHSTANDING THAT much-cited Jerusalem Post poll, the new administration in Washington is convinced that its actions are emphatically in Israel's best interest. It regards itself as realistic and straight-talking - acknowledging the innumerable complications en route to an accord, and highlighting what it feels needs to be done to clear them. In contrast, it regards the previous administration to have been disingenuous and half-hearted - led by a president who continued to insist that a deal could and would be done during his watch, long after that assertion had lost all credibility.
The administration considers itself to be well aware of many of the key stumbling blocks - some of them depressingly familiar from past efforts at peacemaking; some of them newly threatening.
The Syrians fall into the familiar category - obdurate and uncompromising despite, or perhaps because of, Obama's energetic overtures to Damascus. "We can talk normalization once Israel commits itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights," runs the Syrian mantra.
"No," runs the Israeli response, "peace, normalization and territorial compromise need to be discussed together."
The Americans are broadly sympathetic to the Israeli stance. But they know full well, as does Israel, that if Syria is not involved in a peace effort, it is thoroughly capable of disrupting such an effort, via Hizbullah and Hamas.
Hamas, for its part, falls into the newly exacerbated category - a far more potent problem, as the terrorist government of Gaza, than it was just a few short years ago. The Americans sometimes sound naÃ¯ve about Hamas, talking about its need to reform and to accept the Quartet's preconditions for its legitimation as though this might be possible, when in truth Hamas is driven by a perceived religious imperative to destroy the Zionist entity and can no more reform than a lion can embrace vegetarianism.
The most realistic hope when it comes to Hamas is that life for the Palestinians in the West Bank will so obviously improve that their envious cousins in Gaza will throw off the Islamists' yolk, perhaps with the help of the revitalized Dayton-trained forces. And that most realistic prospect isn't remotely realistic at all, at least not in the foreseeable future.
ANOTHER WAY to weaken Hamas, however, would be for its sponsoring Iranian regime to fail in the bid to go nuclear - either deterred by international economic pressure, unseated by a profoundly unhappy post-presidential election populace, or thwarted by outside military intervention.
As was widely reported here this week, the Iranian regime's ruthless response to that post-election bitterness has had something of a sobering effect on what must have been a pretty innocent Washington, bringing home what should have been blindingly obvious: The mullahs of Teheran are deeply unpleasant people who are not susceptible to diplomatic engagement and cannot be trusted with a nuclear capability.
In time, the Obama administration will likely ratchet up the sanctions on Teheran, but by too little and far too late. There are not a few influential officials in Washington who are now convinced that, sooner rather than later, and despite the immense complexities and uncertain consequences, Israel will come to the conclusion that its survival requires a military strike on an Iran that is both avowedly seeking our destruction and closing in on the means to achieve this.
What will then become of a painstakingly constructed Middle East peace table is, frankly, anyone's guess.
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