douglas bloomfield 63.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It wasn’t a white flag of surrender, but it sure seems like the Obama
administration is beating a retreat from the Middle East peace process it once
embraced with great enthusiasm. Administration officials still talk about
working to bring the parties together, but the truth is that neither the
Israelis nor the Palestinians seem much interested, and officials here have
finally gotten the memo.
Veteran negotiator Dennis Ross dashed the hopes
of many at the second national conference of J Street – the self-described
pro-Israel pro-peace lobby – when he said that as the winds of unrest sweep
across the Middle East, the prospects of progress toward peace are being swept
Delegates were disappointed to hear that the administration doesn’t
know when or even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be ready to sit and
talk with each other. Even indirect talks appear iffy.
A similar message
also came from the top UN Middle East envoy, Robert Serry, a Dutch diplomat, as
he made his rounds of briefings in Washington in recent days.
toughest language came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose office leaked
the contents of a tense phone call in which she reportedly told Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu last week his false statements and failure to keep promises
contribute to Israel’s growing international isolation.
German sources, she told Netanyahu she was “disappointed” that he had not taken
“a single step to advance peace.” She was said to be highly skeptical when he
told her he was considering a new peace initiative. Other European leaders are
said to share her anger.
One source in Washington suggested Netanyahu is
talking to the GOP House leadership about addressing a joint meeting of Congress
when he comes here in May for the AIPAC policy conference. His purpose would be
to try to portray himself as the peace seeker, and focus international attention
on the Palestinians as the obstructionists.
J Street enjoys reasonably
good access to the White House, meeting even with the president, and was
energized by his early enthusiasm for pushing both parties to the peace table.
But after a false start last autumn, the enterprise collapsed.
administration apparently sees the prospects as so bleak it is reluctant to risk
any more political capital on active mediation as a difficult election year
approaches, especially when so few in Congress appear inclined to back
J Streeters were stunned that Ross didn’t speak more about the
Israeli-Palestinian issue, and focused mostly on Egypt, leaving the impression
that the peace process was being shelved.
“It’s not what he said, it’s
what he didn’t say,” one activist told me. “There are more than 2,000 people
here who support the administration’s peace policy and want it to succeed. He
could have galvanized that support, but failed. He could have said we’re doing
everything we can to bring peace, but he didn’t.”
Ross said: “We will
continue to press both sides to engage seriously in negotiations” and meetings
will continue between the Quartet and the two sides, but even that was vague. In
listing the administration’s priorities, “the push for peace between Israelis,
Palestinians and their Arab neighbors” was mentioned only in passing, and
clearly without the sense of urgency J Streeters wanted to hear.
Serry is telling people here that the Palestinian Authority fears the unrest
sweeping the Arab world will engulf the West Bank. Palestinian youths are saying
they have two lousy choices, Fatah and Hamas, and a not-very-hopeful future. The
PA, he said, worries that the youths will rise up against the
As a result, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to
negotiate a truce with Hamas and head off possible internecine violence, but if
the past is any indicator, he will fail.
Meanwhile, President Mahmoud
Abbas has retreated to the Yasser Arafat position, minus the violence, Serry
Abbas has decided to bypass direct – and possibly even
indirect – talks with Israel in favor of going to the UN with various
resolutions, culminating in a recognition of statehood. He knows that this will
fail – as Ross warned in his J Street speech – but his real goal is to force the
US to table its own peace plan, which he expects will be much closer to his
position than Netanyahu’s.
The J Street delegates wanted to hear a
rousing call to action by an administration determined to reinvigorate a
moribund peace process, but beyond the confines of the Washington Convention
Center there seemed to be little enthusiasm for the enterprise.