(photo credit: )
No wonder the State Department is known as the Fudge Factory. Not once but twice in three days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood by smiling while getting verbal slaps in the face from two of our closest Arab allies. The Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers publicly declared they have no intention of offering the administration more than gratuitous advice on resuscitating the Arab-Israeli peace process.
It was a repeat of the rebuff President Barack Obama got in Riyadh when he asked the Saudi king for some confidence-building measures (CBM) to reciprocate for the settlement freeze he was seeking from the Israelis.
The president is right in calling for a moratorium on construction, although he handled it badly. Before going public, he should have approached both Israeli and Arab leaders privately with a package deal - simultaneous quid pro quos - that could have made them all look like heroes.
Instead he came out sounding more hard-line on the settlements than the Arabs, who adopted his call for a freeze as a minimum demand and anointed him their surrogate negotiator.
The settlers are not very popular in Israel, but Obama's mishandling of the issue has bolstered their power, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could have trouble selling the compromise he is working on: finish construction already under way and then full stop. Obama set the bar high, and if he settles for anything less, as now appears likely, he will look weak in Arab and Israeli eyes.
Then we saw Clinton in the State Department treaty room saying the administration wants "our friends in Saudi Arabia... to take steps to improve relations with Israel" and how "Saudi Arabia's continued leadership is absolutely vital to achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace."
To which the dour Saudi prince responded with the Arabic equivalent of "fuggedaboudit." Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal totally rejected the notion of CBMs as "distractions" and "incidental issues" that are "not the way to peace." The Saudis, he said, have done their share by introducing a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and now "the question really is: What will Israel give in exchange for this comprehensive settlement offer?"
There are some things you should know about the Saudi plan. In the seven years since it was first unveiled by now-King Abdullah, the Saudis have done nothing to advance it and rebuffed all Israeli attempts to discuss it. The terms - essentially adopted by the Arab League - offer Israel an undefined "peace" in exchange for total withdrawal from all territories, including east Jerusalem. It also calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees (which would mean an end to the Jewish state). They even refuse to explain what they mean by 'peace,' or to hold any negotiations before Israel accepts all its terms. Which raises the question, what's there to negotiate?
The Jordanian foreign minister came by on Monday to echo the Saudi message. What did Clinton think of that? She saw "reason for optimism," said spokesman P.J. Crowley. The meetings were "excellent" and the Arabs support US "reengagement." Their refusals to help were "two strong reaffirmations of the importance" of the US effort to revive the peace talks, he said.
Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, says he's hearing something totally different from the Arabs in private. Nothing new there. It's been that way for years. What potentates and politicians whisper to Mitchell in private means nothing if they haven't the courage to say it in public.
Now we're told the president is going to launch a major PR blitz to sell his policies in Israel and the Arab world. Better late than never; he's the best salesman we have. But late it is.
The president should have taken his case for a settlement freeze directly to the Israeli people when he went to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in June. It's the only country where public opinion makes a difference; besides, settlements are not very popular - that's why Netanyahu tried to shift the debate to Israel's rights to Jerusalem - but Obama is widely viewed with suspicion.
Obama's big challenge is not only convincing the Israelis he can be trusted, but disabusing the Palestinians of the notion that he's their chief negotiator and will deliver Israel on their terms.
The Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers did Netanyahu a big favor when they were in Washington. By declaring that Israel must accept their terms, and that there will be no reciprocity for anything less, they've let him off the hook. So even if he makes a settlement deal with the administration, hard-line Arab attitudes may bring about an early thaw.
In another blow to the Obama administration, Palestinian leaders meeting in Bethlehem this week demanded that all Arab states reject Washington's calls to normalize relations with Israel. And, declared PA President Mahmoud Abbas, if talks with Israel don't turn out to its liking, Fatah retains the option of returning to armed "resistance."
Combine that with Netanyahu's usual sly maneuvering on issues such as settlements and Jerusalem, and the realization may be dawning on the administration that while all the players say they want peace, the US may be the only one willing to do anything to make it happen.
That's a formula for failure.