Washington Watch: Settlements are excuse, not obstacle

Abbas’s rigid insistence on a settlement freeze, like Netanyahu’s rigid insistence on going ahead with construction, are not the real reasons for avoiding serious negotiations.

Barkan settlement 311 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Barkan settlement 311
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Settlements were intended by many of their backers to be obstacles to Palestinian statehood by spreading Jewish communities around the West Bank to prevent drawing borders for the new state, as former prime minister Ariel Sharon once told me. But they were not an obstacle to peace negotiations, at least until Barack Obama came along.
Only two days in office, without a clearly thought out Middle East policy and without laying the groundwork in the region, he called for a total freeze of Israeli construction in the West Bank. Palestinians embraced it and the new right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu rejected it.
Obama eventually climbed off that branch but left Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas out on the limb, unable and unwilling to appear less pro- Palestinian than the American president.
The inexperienced administration wasted nearly two years pursuing a fundamental, predictable error: focusing on settlements rather than the core issues. Now it is trying to retool its policy, but that may prove futile with the present leaders.
Settlements never were the obstacle they were portrayed to be. Abbas’s rigid insistence on a settlement freeze, like Netanyahu’s rigid insistence on going ahead with construction, are excuses, not the real reasons, for avoiding serious negotiations. The real obstacle is weak leadership hobbled by ideology, mistrust and a lack of courage.
Gen. Michael Herzog, a former adviser to Israeli defense ministers and longtime peace negotiator, said both Netanyahu and Abbas “intellectually understand the implications of failure, but are politically unable or unwilling to act.”
Both have been rhetorically profuse in expressing their desire for peace, but parsimonious in their commitment, as an admittedly “frustrated” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her speech last week to the Saban Forum: “It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go, and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires.”
NETANYAHU WOULD rather build settlements than make peace, and Abbas prefers to hide behind settlements as an excuse to avoid tough decisions on sensitive issues like refugees and Jerusalem. Netanyahu said he likes the new American approach, but it is Abbas who should be happiest with the return to indirect talks. He prefers having the Americans negotiate on his behalf, since they carry far more clout in Jerusalem than he does. His hope is that the Americans will get as frustrated with Israel as he is and impose their own peace plan, which he expects will be much closer to what he wants than anything Netanyahu may offer. Clinton said that ain’t gonna happen, but Abbas isn’t convinced.
I can understand the administration’s feeling that it needs to demonstrate continued involvement and show there is some movement on the peace front lest it creates a vacuum that could be filled with frustration and violence. But that seems to be the extent of its thinking. There remains little interest on either side, and fewer prospects for success.
Both sides continue to erect obstacles to peace. For the Palestinians, most serious is the campaign to delegitimize Israel. The latest expression was the recent PA document denying Jewish rights to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, by declaring it an integral part of the Aksa Mosque.
That mosque was built on land where more than a millennium and a half earlier Jews had constructed their Temples, and yet Palestinians would have the world believe the temples never existed. Similar claims by Yasser Arafat were the final straw in destroying his credibility with president Bill Clinton.
It is time for this American president to demand Palestinians end their delegitimization campaign and start dealing with reality.
Denying any Jewish claims to Jerusalem, even to all of Israel, may make the Palestinians feel superior, but it undermines support where they need it most, in the US and Israel, if they expect to have a viable state. Refusal to accept Israel as a homeland for the Jews is seen by most Israelis as a sign that the ultimate goal remains the elimination of their state.
On the Israeli side, provocative building plans in Jerusalem and the extreme rhetoric of some members of Netanyahu’s coalition continue to erode confidence among the Palestinians.
Special peace envoy George Mitchell is meeting with Abbas and Netanyahu this week to try to sell the administration’s new approach; if he meets the same resistance as before, don’t be surprised if it’s his last trip.
It has been said so often it is becoming a cliché, but it remains the operative truth: we can’t want peace more than the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves, and right now their leaders are all talk and no walk. Both sides need new leadership with the courage to move beyond their rhetoric.