Editor's Notes: The president is disappointed

And for that reason, and a whole host of others, Netanyahu may yet renew the settlement freeze.

Obama talking to bibi on phone 311 (photo credit: Pete Souza)
Obama talking to bibi on phone 311
(photo credit: Pete Souza)
“I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.”– President Barack Obama, after talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at the White House on July 6.
Our prime minister went to the White House in early July determined to impress upon a skeptical US president – whose administration had previously slammed Israel, publicly and brutally, over new building in east Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood – that he was no obstacle to peacemaking.
More than three months later, next to nobody knows exactly what it was that Binyamin Netanyahu told Barack Obama during their face-to-face conversations that day. Even very senior Israeli and American officials don’t have the specifics.
But whatever it was that Netanyahu said, it evidently did the trick. Two smiling leaders emerged from their talks to praise each other. Critically for Netanyahu, the president now publicly endorsed his peacemaking credentials: “I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” said the president of the prime minister.
Obama’s vision of an accord cannot be construed to include particular empathy for the settlement enterprise. His administration has made this plain by declining to formally embrace the George W. Bush letter to Ariel Sharon of 2004, with its sympathetic references to “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers” in the West Bank. Obama himself has placed the problematics of settlements front and center in a series of public remarks – including as recently as his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, when he chose to declare that the settlement moratorium “should be extended,” all but obligating the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to demand this as his price for staying at the talks. So Netanyahu, in winning Obama’s endorsement in July, must have given the president cause for what he would consider optimism on that specific issue.
Again, even some of the best-informed insiders – several of whom I’ve spoken with in the last few days, in Israel and in the US, and whose opinions and assessments inform this article – don’t have the details. They don’t know where Netanyahu is ready to draw his red lines in Judea and Samaria. They don’t know how much of Ehud Olmert’s rebuffed peace offer is acceptable to him, though they strongly doubt he would endorse the relinquishing of Israeli sovereignty at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. But Obama evidently thought he had heard positions that offered the possibility of a deal.
And in the light of that meeting, the US administration went to work. Abbas had been resisting direct talks with Israel despite the fact that the US-imposed, reluctantly Israeli-conceded 10-month freeze had already been in force for more than seven months. Now, behind the scenes, Washington intensified the pressure on Abbas, directly and indirectly. It put its prestige on the line. Finally, on September 1, the effort paid off and, with great pomp and ceremony, direct Israeli- Palestinian peace talks were finally relaunched... only to break down again when the settlement freeze expired less than four weeks later.
THIS MAY seem staggering to those observers who, in defiance of all bitter experience, insist on believing that the would-be stewards of Middle East peace efforts know what they’re doing. But the fact is that the US had no “Plan B” ready for implementation, should Netanyahu choose not to extend the freeze. It had no “Plan B,” even though Netanyahu had repeatedly stated that he would not, could not, extend the moratorium.
It had launched the direct talks, indeed, even though it was well aware that Abbas was threatening to leave the moment the freeze expired, with no back-up tactic should this happen, and fully aware that past rounds of insufficiently prepared peace talks, when they inevitably collapsed, have led to devastating outbreaks of Palestinian terrorism and years of violence.
It had done so in the belief that, cometh the hour, cometh the man – that Netanyahu, the leader proclaimed by Obama to be “willing to take risks for peace,” would reverse himself and extend the freeze on September 26.
It believed this, evidently, because Netanyahu had made so overt his conviction that Israel’s interests required substantive progress in the direct talks. It believed this because Netanyahu had publicly endorsed Abbas as a viable partner.
It believed this because, although Netanyahu claimed to face all manner of domestic political constraints, in its reading of Israeli politics, it saw Avigdor Lieberman as being unlikely to bolt the coalition and Tzipi Livni stepping in to ensure stability if he did so.
It believed this, furthermore, because it thought Israel recognized that the very fact of an ongoing peace process was central to America’s capacity to staunch the tide of anti-Israel delegitimization in the international community. With talks ongoing, it could use the “peace process” card to discourage all manner of formal and informal, government and non-government anti-Israel initiatives from all around the world. Don’t underestimate the force of that hostile tide, officials in Washington habitually tell their Israeli counterparts. And don’t underestimate the amount of work we put in to countering it.
It believed this, too, because it thought Netanyahu dare not leave a clearer path for Abbas to seek unilateral support for Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 lines via the UN General Assembly, with the potential for snowballing international support and unpredictable practical consequences.
Most of all, however, it believed that Netanyahu would ultimately extend the freeze and keep the talks alive on the basis of what the prime minister had told Obama in that most excellent meeting on July 6.
It was mistaken. September 26 came and went. And, to what is politely described as the president’s disappointment, the moratorium went with it.
US OFFICIALS, including those who are most sympathetic to and supportive of Israel, consider that Netanyahu made a major mistake in not extending the freeze last month. They argue that, had the prime minister done so, the watching world would have been much impressed by his readiness to damage his domestic credibility (by reneging on the promise that the moratorium was a once-only affair) in the cause of maintaining the negotiations, and that this would have intensified the pressure on Abbas to move ahead in the talks.
Significantly, plenty of veteran American Jewish leaders, highly supportive of Israel and of Netanyahu, also consider Netanyahu to have erred, though they wouldn’t say so publicly.
As for the question of what difference the requested two- or three-month extension would have made, it is argued that the mere maintenance of the momentum would have been immensely positive.
True, it is unlikely that a major breakthrough could be achieved in a couple of months, but the US hope was certainly that the very fact of ongoing discussions, and the gradual elevation of trust involved in the regular contacts, would prove so beneficial as to gradually create opportunities for genuine progress. Again, this argument may defy the bitter experiences of previous peace efforts, but this is a new administration, and many of its key players have not been burned before. This is the first time they find themselves personally caught in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating quagmire.
Now, of course, the moment has passed.
Notwithstanding whatever he said in private to Obama in July, and despite his upbeat, optimistic public comments last month when the direct talks began – his words of support for Abbas and his declared confidence in the potential to reach a deal – Netanyahu opted not to extend the freeze at the end of September.
As he should have predicted, however, Obama has not given up.
INDEED, THIS president, according to many people to whom I’ve spoken – those who work directly with him and those who interact with him – came into office determined to make Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking his issue. And the setbacks have done nothing to change his determination.
Quite the reverse. He believes that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does complicate America’s other relations in the Arab world and beyond.
While he emphatically holds to the traditional American opposition to settlements, he also knows that most Israelis have concluded that the capacity to maintain a Jewish and democratic Israel requires finding an accommodation with the Palestinians. So he sees no contradiction between his understandings of American and Israeli interests. And he has been buffeted by Arab and European leaders expressing purported bafflement over America’s ongoing disinclination to encourage, press and if necessary force Israel into what is thus deemed to be the mutual American-Israeli-Palestinian need for a territorial compromise.
Where his administration’s assessment may have differed most from that of Israel’s is on the question of whether Abbas is ready to meet the Jewish state anywhere near halfway.
Which is where Netanyahu’s July 6 meeting with him may have been particularly significant. “The prime minister told the president that he was for real.
That he was utterly serious about peacemaking,” one extremely well-informed source said to me this week. “And he assured the president that Abbas was for real, too. He succeeded too well. Obama believes this.”
SO NOW, behind the scenes, the administration is pushing Israel extremely hard again for a renewed freeze. The indefatigable Dennis Ross, working with de facto foreign minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu’s point man Yitzhak Molcho, has been working on the carrot – a package of security and other guarantees that, if agreed, would be set out in a presidential letter to the prime minister.
An implied stick may be found in the current US disinclination to publicly state its adamant opposition to the notion of the Palestinians seeking UN endorsement of a unilateral declaration of statehood.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has a good degree of access to the American and Israeli leadership, and has attended Abbas’s recent outreach meetings to US Jewish leaders, said this week that, for Abbas, the UN route is a potential “escape hatch” from coming to terms with Israel. And he urged the US “to make publicly clear, to the Palestinians and to the world, that it will not support this kind of effort. The US must close every exit door or it won’t get the Palestinians back to the talks.”
The US can’t actually “close every exit door” even if it tries. It can veto binding Security Council resolutions, but it cannot prevent the kind of supportive UNlinked process that has turned Kosovo’s “statehood” into a fait accompli, with the recognition of 70 nations, despite opposition from permanent Security Council member Russia and reservations from China. With the Non-Aligned Movement firmly behind it, “Palestine” could fare still better.
But broadly speaking, Foxman is right, of course. The US could be sending out a more forceful message of opposition – more forceful, for instance, than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s entreaty on Wednesday to both sides to “persevere with negotiations” and to “avoid any actions that would undermine trust or prejudice the outcome of the talks.” And it is my firm understanding that the Obama administration does indeed strongly oppose the unilateralist path, which breaches previous commitments and carries ominous overtones.
UN General Assembly support for statehood, though not binding, confers a potent sense of legitimacy. And with that ostensible legitimacy, and the sense of international momentum and backing, the consequences are hard to predict and might prove hard to control.
There might follow, for instance, an effort to obtain through violence against Israel what was not agreed via negotiation – a third intifada that Hamas, Hizbullah and their Iranian patrons would have every interest in supporting.
Even if that were not the case, Israel would be on the diplomatic defensive, with the Palestinians having attained “statehood” without making any concessions to Israel. Until recently, Israel was airily dismissive of these dangers.
Belatedly, it is waking up to them.
The administration would have a range of options to choose from should the direct talks prove unsalvageable. It could back away from the process altogether.
It could try to at least suggest new terms of reference for a renewed effort. It could try to impose its own terms of reference. It could try to impose a full “Obama plan” for an accord. Or it could step back and allow the Palestinians to attempt a unilateral move toward statehood. That the US would opt for either of the last two of those options is deemed highly unlikely. But, for now, it seems, the administration is playing a little bit of hardball with Israel in not more clearly and definitively seeking to quash the Palestinian talk of a UN route.
FOR NOW, indeed, the administration has emphatically not given up on salvaging the direct talks. Which means, by extension, that it has not given up on winning a new settlement freeze from Netanyahu.
In fact, there is some confidence, expressed with strict anonymity at this point, that the prime minister will consent to renew the moratorium – and pretty soon, at that.
Netanyahu’s critics have often argued over the years that he has a propensity for indecision and zigzagging – as evidenced by this week’s belated rethink to require new Jewish, as well as new Arab citizens, to pledge a loyalty oath to the Jewish, democratic State of Israel. And, moreover, say the critics, when Netanyahu does finally do the right or necessary thing, he does it so late as to drastically reduce the credit he would otherwise have obtained for doing so.
Renewing the freeze, it is quietly being argued by some American, Israeli and Jewish leaders alike, is the latest case in point. His best move would have been to extend it, as requested, at the end of September – demonstrating again to the US, and emphasizing to a still skeptical international community, the sacrifices he is prepared to take in order to move the negotiations forward.
He will have to renew it sooner or later, some of these leaders argue, because of Israel’s wider needs; because of the acute dangers of leaving a vacuum where US-mediated peace talks used to be – a vacuum to be filled by more disadvantageous diplomatic gambits and/or by violence; and because failing to do so, in the face of Obama’s pressure and Obama’s assessment of the American and Israeli interest, would risk gravely damaging American-Israeli relations.
And Netanyahu cannot afford to risk gravely damaging American-Israeli relations beneath the looming shadow of a nuclear Iran.
Although the status of the peace process will have no significant bearing on voters’ choices in the US midterm elections, the timing of Netanyahu’s response could have a considerable bearing on Obama’s attitude to him. A renewed freeze before the elections might be regarded as a supportive, if belated, gesture; a renewed freeze after the elections, in the face of further US pressure, will bring rather less kudos.
However the Democrats fare, the president is committed to pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. That will remain the case whether he is weakened or strengthened after the midterms, whether he is looking confidently ahead to reelection or facing an uphill struggle.
What is not yet resolved is how he will set about achieving an accord, who he will blame for past problems, and where he will seek to apply more pressure. And that, in part, will depend on whether Netanyahu, whom he so confidently branded a peacemaker just three months ago, continues to disappoint him.