If solving the Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict is the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Middle East policy - at times it seems the keystone of its entire policy - there's an obvious problem derailing it.
The president of the United States and senior officials have repeatedly announced that they consider final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as high priority.
It is one of the most basic rules of foreign policy that you don't put the chief executive's prestige on the line unless you know for darn sure beforehand that what he says will happen.
The fly in the ointment here is the PA. It forcefully insists that it won't even meet formally with Israel until all construction in all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem stops completely.
Already, however, US-Israel discussions have moved past that point. We don't know precisely where they stand, but clearly the administration isn't pushing for a total halt and it isn't pushing all that urgently on the issue.
THEREFORE, WHILE Israel has succeeded in conciliating the US, the PA is defying Washington. We know that it's serious in doing so because of what has just happened with the Goldstone report in the UN. The administration asked the PA not to take a lead role in pushing the report; the PA complied for about 48 hours and then internal pressure forced it to go back on its word. Most of this pressure was not the masses spontaneous outrage but from the hard-line elements which dominate the ruling Fatah group as well as in the PA itself.
PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is not going to back down on his demand. He is more afraid of his own colleagues, Hamas's baiting him as a "moderate" (a compliment perhaps from the West but a deadly insult in Palestinian politics) and his own people than of Obama. Indeed, nobody is afraid of Obama, which is one of the main problems with his foreign policy.
Disdaining the use of threats, leverage and pressure, the Obama administration is not likely to push the PA very hard on this and even if it did, Abbas would stand firm. Having extolled the Palestinians as peace-loving martyrs, courting Arab and Muslim opinion, treasuring popularity, the administration won't get tough. No amount of funding or other goodies is going to move the PA or Abbas either. For Abbas, it is something like the classical choice which can be paraphrased as: Your money or your life?
So there is, and will be, a deadlock, month after month into 2010. Is there some clever way out? I don't see one and I bet the administration doesn't either.
Abbas also has what for him is an attractive alternative: strike a militant pose, blame America, seek rapprochement with Hamas. In addition, what both the US and Europe fail to see is that the Palestinians don't need or want rapid progress on negotiations or even a state except on what would be completely their own terms. They can also afford the luxury of believing - and this is what Western policy has taught them - that Europe and America need them more than they need the West. Moreover they believe, and again this is what they have been shown, that intransigence on their part actually brings more criticism on Israel. If you believe, rightly or wrongly, that the world is about to condemn Israel as a pariah, war criminal state why make compromises with it?
This is the corner into which the Obama administration has painted itself. And all that it has left is what might be called the cat strategy. Have you ever seen a cat miss a leap or have an embarrassing fall? It merely licks itself and looks around with an expression saying: I meant to do that. Everything is going according to plan.
But it isn't.
The newest development is the idea, favored by many in the European Union, of endorsing PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad's "plan" for there to be a de facto Palestinian state within two years. Of course, this won't happen either.
The whole thing is taking on a comic opera air. It reminded me of something. And then I remembered: the classical description of the Arab defeat in the 1948 war and Israel's creation by Constantine Zurayk, vice-president of the American University of Beirut, in his book The Meaning of the Disaster.
He wrote: "Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop impotent before it and turn on their heels. The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest international forums, warning what the Arab states and peoples will do if this or that decision be enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate."
For the Arab states, the fiery speeches do have a value of their own - cowing rivals and mobilizing the masses to support their local dictator. But when the US acts like a pitiful, helpless giant - even if it is a nice and friendly, apologetic one - the world shudders and shakes.