US Affairs: Speak softly and carry a big check

Scarred by decades of failed attempts at Mideast peacemaking, the current US administration is charting a smarter, more learned approach.

Mitchell 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – When US Middle East envoy George Mitchell took to the podium to brief the press during the first day of direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on Thursday, he began by saying that he would not be very forthcoming with the details.
He made good on his warning a few minutes later when a CBS News reporter began a question by asking whether the two sides had discussed the issue of settlements.
“As I said at the outset, what I will be able to disclose to you... will be limited,” Mitchell responded. “And so you’ve given me the first opportunity to invoke that principle with respect to the first part of your question, for which I thank you.”
Though his response was more elaborate – and humorous – than most on the subject, it was only the latest in a recent string of responses from American officials avoiding discussing settlements or even using the term.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy described the reticence as partly an effort to keep the highly scripted launch of negotiations on track without any controversial comments that “could rain on the parade.” According to Makovsky, “Nobody wanted anything that would be stated publicly to mar the occasion and remind [people] why they were so skeptical.”
That approach, however, stands in marked contrast to the emphasis – often publicly and at the highest levels – that the Obama administration once put on settlements in its bid to restart the negotiating process.
As Mitchell himself announced a few months after taking office in 2009, “Our focus right now is to create the context for the resumption and early conclusion of meaningful negotiations. To help achieve this, we’re asking all parties to take meaningful steps. For the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements.”
That point was reiterated – and clarified by top White House and State Department officials to include east Jerusalem and natural growth – repeatedly through March, when settlement policy led to one of the most serious breaches between the US and Israel in years. When construction in Ramat Shlomo was approved as Vice President Joe Biden arrived for what was supposed to be a goodwill tour, he ended up condemning Israel’s settlement policy during his marquee speech to the Israeli public.
That officials are now going to lengths to stay mum on the topic seems a tacit acknowledgement that the previous public proclamations didn’t achieve their aim. As Makovsky succinctly put it, “They think it didn’t get anywhere.”
Indeed, though the idea was to get quickly to peace talks – originally slated to take off a year ago – the public emphasis on s e t t l e m e n t s was seen by many as making it more difficult for both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the table.
The Israeli public lost faith in US support with its public criticism of policies that had traditionally been dealt with more discreetly, particularly when it involved neighborhoods in Jerusalem and settlement blocs long understood to remain within Israel in any peace deal. Abbas, for his part, made a settlement freeze a precondition for talks though it had never before been one; he told one interviewer that he couldn’t accept less than the Americans were requiring.
Biden, in fact, had been dispatched to Jerusalem to sooth just those tensions when his trip ended up sparking an even bigger crisis between the two countries. Congress and the American Jewish community began to loudly voice their displeasure. One of the points many made in the aftermath was that this issue was best dealt with behind closed doors.
“The administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel,” an American Israel Public Affairs Committee statement stressed. “We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel.”
In the end, Netanyahu only agreed to a 10-month moratorium on construction that didn’t include east Jerusalem. It is set to end on September 26.
The issue now looms as one that could rupture talks that have only just begun. Abbas, facing public criticism over his participation in negotiations, has threatened to walk out if the moratorium isn’t extended.
Netanyahu, in a coalition dominated by right-wing politicians, has already stated that his government hasn’t changed its position.
So the administration has been urgently consulting with both sides on ways to bridge the divide, whether through additional gestures to the Palestinians, extending the freeze in some areas but not others or discouraging any change on the ground regardless of the stated policy.
ONE CONSTANT has been the silent nature of these conversations.
“There’s no doubt that the tone of the administration through March of this year stands in sharp contrast to where they are today. Now their goal is to have a successful negotiation,” Makovsky said. When it comes to dealing with settlements in that context, “the way to do that is work it quietly and behind the scenes.”
American officials understand that domestic politics are at play for both audiences and that forcing Netanyahu to make public declarations on settlements could only further inflame the opposition of those on the Right. Raising the profile could force him to take a more strident public line, which would in turn make Abbas less able to back down.
By working the situation quietly, they can give both leaders more space to maneuver.
Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator and author of The Much Too Promised Land, referred to the current approach as “a variant of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Miller, though, pointed out that there’s another “paradoxical” reason why the rhetoric on settlements has changed: Now that peace talks have started, the Americans care less about them.
He described US officials as extremely focused on settlements before talks began because they saw them as destructive to the atmosphere of trust between the two sides the US wants to foster.
But once talks began, settlements become just another issue to be negotiated.
The focus becomes staying at the table rather than making moves outside the process, because ultimately it’s only at the table that settlements will be resolved.
“They will essentially accommodate them because the object is basically to end the conflict and deal with the settlement issue comprehensively,” he said.
Miller said that means the message the US is conveying to the Palestinians for now is: “Suck it up and stay at the table.”