Washington Watch: Hillary to the rescue?

Washington Watch Hillar

November 4, 2009 22:41
4 minute read.

Hillary Clinton's rescue mission last weekend to breathe life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process was either a failure or a success, depending on who's telling the story. The secretary of state made a quick stop in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to press Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demands for a total settlement construction freeze and return to the peace table with Israel. He refused. She then flew to Jerusalem, where she praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's "unprecedented... restraint" in agreeing to a partial moratorium - but no freeze - on settlement building. That was the deal Abbas rejected hours earlier, sending his spokesman out to declare there is "no hope of negotiations on the horizon." Although Netanyahu had just told Clinton he was "eager to advance" the peace process, he had reason to be pleased. The Obama administration had backed off - far off - its original demand for a freeze, even in east Jerusalem, and the Palestinians were being blame for blocking the relaunching of the peace process. The other peace process is more important to Netanyahu: repairing frayed relations between himself and the Obama administration without risking his right-wing coalition. Both sides have been working very hard at it, as Clinton's effusive if undeserved praise demonstrated, and it has paid off. THE PRIME minister's top priority is not the Palestinians but the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions, and that will top his agenda when he meets President Barack Obama at the White House next week. Obama has made relaunching Mideast peace talks a major administration goal, and it will take more than Abbas's latest demands to make him walk away from it. Netanyahu will tell the president he is a willing partner for the Palestinians, but most of all he wants to convince Obama to intensify pressure on Iran. Similarly, Obama wants to make sure Israel doesn't feel no one is taking the Iranian threat seriously so it will have to act unilaterally. Netanyahu never had much enthusiasm for the Palestinian negotiations because key coalition partners would not support the kind of concessions essential to reaching an agreement on final status issues. But so far he hasn't had to confront that because the Palestinians are deeply and bitterly divided over who should rule Palestine and whether their goal is peace or the elimination of Israel. Abbas's inflexibility on settlements may have less to do with Israel than with internal Palestinian politics. Facing elections next year, he feels he cannot afford to look weak on such a highly charged issue. After Obama called for a settlement freeze, Abbas climbed out on the same limb and made it a condition for returning to the peace talks. When Obama climbed back, Abbas was unwilling - or unable - to follow lest his political opponents accuse him of going soft on settlements. The peace process is in deep trouble not just because neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are ready, but also because the administration launched it the day after taking office without being fully prepared with staffing, policy and support at home and in the region. And it is paying the price. With the prospects for real progress fading, the Obama administration may be looking for a face-saving way to rescue its peace initiative: indirect talks, probably through US special envoy George Mitchell or some other intermediary. That may not appeal to Netanyahu, who has rejected a similar arrangement with the Syrians, insisting on face-to-face talks. Clinton took her rescue mission Morocco to try to drum up support for the peace process among Arab foreign ministers meeting in Marrakech, but if the past is any indication she can expect a heavy dose of world class kvetching laden with demands for what the US should make Israel do, but little else. However, Ynet reports Arab leaders are privately telling Abbas: Quit dithering and resume negotiations, because by holding out you strengthen Netanyahu's hand and weaken Obama's ability to press Israel for concessions. Abbas can't afford to refuse to talk indefinitely or to keep raising new demands or even walk away; he has to go to the voters next year and be able to show that his path - negotiations - produces more benefits for Palestinians than Hamas's - violence. What's more, he can't afford to lose the US and international aid that keeps his government afloat. Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, last week told the J Street lobby's conference that if the president could solve only one international problem, his recommendation would be Israeli-Palestinian peace, which he called the "epicenter" of US foreign policy. The president made it a top priority on the day after he took office, and a big share of his stature is at stake in his commitment to relaunching the peace process. He won't want to go to Oslo (an ironic location in this case) on December 10 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize with nothing to show but failure on what was to be a defining issue for his administration.

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