Diplomacy: The long road to proximity talks

What made the Obama administration shift from outreach to the Muslim world to bear hug of Israel?

Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
When US President Barack Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy on January 22, 2009, just two days after his inauguration, he told him to hop on a plane immediately and start talking to the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We have no time to lose,” Obama said when he announced the appointment at the State Department. “It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
Mitchell did not board a plane immediately after the press conference, but he did come just one week later and has gone back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian officials dozens of times since then.
Upon accepting the appointment, Mitchell said he “doesn’t underestimate the difficulty of this assignment.” In a December 2008 speech at Tel Aviv University one month earlier, he recalled that in the talks he mediated in Northern Ireland, he had “seven hundred days of failure and one day of success.”
But Mitchell undoubtedly would have been shocked had he been told at the time of his appointment that the first official talks between Israel and the Palestinians would only take place 482 days later, and they wouldn’t even be direct.
Mitchell met with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem Thursday, and he is expected to return every two weeks en route to direct talks, and, Mitchell hopes, eventually the diplomatic agreement that he has said many times he believes he can successfully broker.
Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel were surprisingly candid over the past week about why the proximity talks took so long to get off the ground, and how US-Israel relations deteriorated. They accepted what polls in both the US and Israel have indicated for months: It’s Obama’s fault.
As Herb Keinon revealed in his scoop in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, Emanuel told a group of rabbis at the White House last Thursday that the Obama administration has “screwed up the messaging” about its support for Israel over the past 14 months, and it will take “more than one month to make up for 14 months.” The legendarily foul-mouthed Emanuel apparently did say “screwed up” and not something worse.
Obama admitted to 37 Jewish Congressmen in a meeting Tuesday that he made key missteps in sensitive US-Israel relations. Like Emanuel, he said his mistakes were not about policy, but the way the message was delivered.
“I walked through a minefield in the Middle East and I stepped on the land mines,” Obama told the Congressmen, according to the New York Post. “I got some toes blown off.” Sources close to Netanyahu said the key to the success of the talks is Obama and Emanuel not repeating the mistakes that they admitted this week. Obama and Emanuel might not have spelled it out as directly, but the thinking in Jerusalem is that had the Obama administration not tried so hard to reach out to the Palestinians and the Arab states, direct talks could have begun a year ago.
WHEN THE Obama administration tried to appeal to Abbas and the Muslim world, the Arab states refused to play a role in the diplomatic process and the Palestinians hardened their positions, preventing negotiations from getting off the ground. When Washington made a concerted effort to reach out to Israel, not coincidentally, the proximity talks began.
The talks have begun without preconditions, as Netanyahu insisted all along. The Obama administration backed down from key demands the president made in their highly charged March 23 White House meeting, including that Netanyahu publicly announce a construction freeze in Jerusalem, and according to one account, that he already extend the freeze beyond 10 months.
Netanyahu caved in when he agreed to hold substantive discussions in the proximity talks and not merely use them as a procedural corridor for direct talks. But he received assurances from Mitchell that no issues would be resolved in the proximity talks and that the US would initiate direct negotiations as soon as possible.
All disputes will be handled more quietly from now on to prevent undermining the talks and making one side look bad. Regarding the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over which issues would be discussed first, both sides can raise any issue, but the fate of Jerusalem will be brought up last as Israel has urged the entire time.
What made the Obama administration come along and shift from putting all its emphasis on outreach to the Muslim world to its bear hug of Israel over the past month that – according to Jerusalem – enabled the talks to begin?
Three different answers have been offered. One is that Netanyahu and his advisers are really persuasive, and their policy of standing up for their principles and insisting that the talks begin without preconditions and without a complete freeze proved itself.
Another is that Obama and his advisers realized on their own that what they had tried until that point had not worked and it was time to go in a different direction.
The final answer is that American Jewish leaders successfully galvanized their community and applied pressure at a time when they could make the maximum impact. Whether this worked because of the justice of their cause or the profitability of their pocketbooks ahead of a November election in which the Democrats are concerned about fundraising remains to be seen.
The timing of the turnaround in Washington seems to indicate that the American Jewish community played a key role regardless of whether the change is serious and permanent or tactical and temporary.
Rock bottom in the US-Israel relationship was reached at the end of March with the ill-fated Obama-Netanyahu meeting on March 23, and the following day when US National Security Adviser James Jones hosted six former holders of his post. Obama walked in and Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for Jimmy Carter, urged him to impose a peace initiative.
Two days after that, The Jerusalem Post published a poll indicating that just nine percent of Israelis believed that the Obama administration was more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian.
It got so bad that one Likud minister predicted that the US-Israel relationship would only improve when Obama received a wake-up call from terrorism as George W. Bush did on September 11, 2001. The minister said that barring that, the only thing that could help was a mass campaign against Obama’s policies by US Jews.
“Internal political pressure in the US can help,” the minister told The Post on April 11. “We saw this with Obama’s decisions to not close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to continue operations in Afghanistan. We don’t see enough criticism among US Jews of delusional anti-Israel policies. If they see in Washington that the American people don’t buy their policies, they will have to change them.”
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, a veteran Israel supporter, issued a similar call in his blog on The Post website the following day.
“I am shocked by the lack of outrage on the part of Israel’s most ardent supporters,” he wrote. “What bothers me most of all is the shameful silence and lack of action by community leaders – Jew and Christian. Where are they?”
Just one day later, the title wave began. On April 13, AIPAC released a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rebuking the Obama administration for its confrontational stance toward Israel that has been signed by 76 Senators and 333 Congressmen.
On April 15, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder published a letter to Obama in the Post, the Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, in which he questioned whether friction with Israel was part of a new strategy of improving relations with the Muslim world and complained that “the thrust of this administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks when it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.”
Last but not least came Elie Wiesel’s April 17 letter in which he pleaded with Obama that “Jerusalem must be above politics.”
The response from the Obama administration came immediately, first with his Yom Ha’atzmaut press release in which he said that “Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.”
That same day Emanuel told Charlie Rose’s program that “No world leader has had as much time with the president than Netanyahu and, he described the prime minister’s ties with Obama as a “totally honest, very constructive working relationship.”
Emanuel met with a group of rabbis the following day and told them that Obama understood why Israelis were cynical regarding the peace process, since bilateral negotiations – the Oslo process – led to the terrorism of the second intifada; and unilateral action – withdrawal from Lebanon and disengagement from Gaza – left them with a strengthened Hamas and Hizbullah.
Over the next two days, Obama denied that he was considering imposing a peace agreement.
“I recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside,” he wrote Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairman Alan Solow April 20. “It must be negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard choices and compromises that take on history.”
National Security Adviser James Jones added in an April 21 speech to Washington Institute for Near East Policy that “we recognize that peace must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.”
Obama dropped by a meeting between Jones and Defense Minister Ehud Barak April 26 and called Netanyahu on May 3, and had lunch with Wiesel on May 4 to reiterate that positive message.
While one source in Jerusalem said the efforts by the American Jewish community were all at their own initiative, a Likud minister revealed that they were not a coincidence. He expressed relief that the campaign had been successful, but skepticism that what appeared to be a change in Washington’s behavior would prove long-lasting.