Analysis: Obama's settlement focus handcuffing negotiations

If the US wants to get negotiations started, its policy is proving counterproductive.

Obama 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
With Defense Minister Ehud Barak scheduled to fly back to Washington on Monday for another round of talks about construction in the settlements, it is instructive to ask at this point what exactly US President Barack Obama is trying to achieve by pushing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the wall on this issue. If, as some maintain, it's a way to build his credentials in the Arab world, then - okay - the policy can be understood. US and European diplomats say continuously that everywhere they travel in the Arab world, settlement construction is the one issue that they hear about time and time again: that construction in the settlements is poisoning the atmosphere and that Obama's seriousness in charting a new policy with the Arab world will be judged in no small degree by how he deals with Israel on this issue. And, as has been said ad nauseam, Obama wants the Arab world. He wants the Arab world to help him out of Iraq and the worsening quagmire in Afghanistan, and also in dealing with Iran -- though the international community's policy toward Iran is likely to undergo a drastic reassessment following the schisms within Iranian society that are now out there for everyone to see. One can argue that it is ludicrous to link settlements with Syria's sealing its borders with Iraq, or getting the Untied Arab Emirates to reduce its booming business with Teheran, but the link is continuously being drawn, and Obama wants to remove this particular coal from the fire. But if Obama is being so forceful on the settlements out of a belief that this will push the negotiation process forward, then he is mistaken. Whether this was Obama's intention or not, his hard line on the settlements has effectively made Israeli-Palestinian negotiations dependent on a complete settlement freeze, something the Netanyahu government - because of its political makeup and Netanyahu's desire for political longevity - is simply not going to do. So here is the status report so far on the Obama administration's settlement policy: The US has strongly called for a complete settlement freeze, Netanyahu has made clear that he will not comply and the Palestinians say that they will not begin negotiating until one is in place. The bottom line: there will be no negotiations. Ironically, this state of no-negotiations is good and comfortable for PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He is not interested in negotiating with Netanyahu, figuring - probably rightly so - that he is not going to get more from the Likud prime minister than he got from former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was willing to cede more than 93 percent of the West Bank, make up for the rest with a land swap, and relinquish Israel's claim over the holy basin in Jerusalem. Abbas turned down Olmert's offer, telling The Washington Post that the gaps were too wide. He is he probably reasoning that those gaps aren't going to narrow under Netanyahu, so why negotiate? And Obama has now given him an excuse not to. This state of no-negotiations might serve Netanyahu's purpose as well, at least if one believes his critics, who argue that the prime minister really doesn't think it is possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and that all he is doing now is posturing. Netanyahu has made clear that he will not agree to a complete freeze. He has said that he won't build any new settlements, or expropriate any new land, but he won't freeze construction for natural growth. First of all, it is not clear whether he legally has the power to do so. How do you stop building an apartment that is 75% complete? What about contractual obligations? What about money invested? Secondly, even if Netanyahu could wave his wand and magically stop everything right now, politically he can't. With Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman breathing down his neck, the prime minister is not going to do something that most Israelis, according to the recent polls, don't even think he should do - stop natural growth construction in the large settlement blocs. If Obama thinks that by pressing this issue real hard, the Israeli public will revolt against Netanyahu, or that Netanyahu will go gently into the good political night, then he is misreading both the public and Netanyahu. Netanyahu, currently flirting with Kadima's Shaul Mofaz, will not be felled so easily. Interestingly enough, last week two former Washington insiders heavily involved over the years in Middle East issues - Aaron David Miller, the 1990s Middle East negotiator from the Left, and Elliott Abrams, the former deputy national security advisor from the Right - addressed a group in Washington and both said the Obama administration's focus on the settlements was a mistake. Abrams, for his part, said he did not understand Obama's apparent decision "to take the position that Israel is the problem." And, indeed, making the settlements the issue takes all the onus off the Palestinians. And as far as Miller was concerned, the JTA quoted him as saying that "as legitimate a problem as settlements are with respect to undermining the environment toward a negotiation," they are a "distraction" given all the other problems that need to be addressed. "Given the stakes and reality, we are going to need a relationship with Israel of great intimacy in order to do this. We need to think very carefully about how we're going about it, where is the strategy, what is the objective," said Miller, no fan of the settlement enterprise. And, indeed, if the US objective is to get negotiations started, then the Obama administration's policy of making the settlements its main focus is proving counterproductive.