Will Israel take the fall?

The Jerusalem building announcement may have already provided the US with the pretext to blame Israel for the prospective failure of the "proximity talks."

Hillary Clinton 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hillary Clinton 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s personal apology to US Vice President Joseph Biden and further clarifications to senior administration officials apparently did little to calm President Barack Obama. His reported rage stemmed from the ill-timed publication of the fourth of seven approvals that were issued by a mid-level bureaucrat in the Jerusalem District Office for Planning and Building to build three years from now in the city’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood.
The administration’s language was unprecedented in its severity. It accused the Netanyahu government of engineering a “set up” of Biden and “stabbing the US in the back.” Obama reportedly orchestrated the US response that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 43-minute long-distance tongue-lashing and demand of further concessions from Netanyahu that left the prime minister “stunned.” Netanyahu’s reaction is understandable.
The US walloping of “America’s best friend,” as Biden put it during his recent visit, seems out of context.
Over the past year, Netanyahu has been working round the clock to cooperate with the US administration on the Palestinian issue to leverage up Israeli “equity” with Washington in the hope the US would lead the international effort to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu recognized a prospective Palestinian state a year ago, imposed the most severe building moratorium in the country’s history, undertook a series of financial and security gestures to help PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and has publicly pleaded with him to negotiate peace. And despite Palestinian rejections of Israeli outreach, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was invited to be a keynote speaker at this year’s Herzliya conference, and was personally hosted by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
AT THE same time, as Noah Pollack noted recently in Commentary magazine, “Palestinian incitement, the PA’s public celebration of terrorism, delegitimization of Israel, rioting in Jerusalem, accusations that Israel murdered Yasser Arafat, the ongoing Palestinian refusal to participate in negotiations – none of these have warranted any American comment whatsoever.”
There is something deeper going on with this US administration than Ramat Shlomo’s unintended yet regrettable “poke in the eye.” The White House’s overheated response seems to reflect its ongoing negative posture toward Israel in the context of the administration’s engagement of and reorientation to the Arab world and its concomitant determination to facilitate the Palestinian statehood bid along the 1967 lines.
The Jerusalem building announcement may have already provided the US with the pretext to blame Israel for the prospective failure of the “proximity talks” that Biden instructed the Palestinians and Israelis to restart as he ended his visit.
The notion of a useful American pretext to assign blame has been strengthened by the latest US demand that Israel make additional concessions to Abbas including a complete building freeze in Jerusalem and the negotiating of all the core issues – borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees, in opposition to what had been discussed with the administration and noted by Biden himself during his visit.
This is particularly problematic because even without US-Israel tensions, the proximity talks have been structurally flawed from the outset, which would likely have resulted in their collapse over the next four months.
First, Abbas and Netanyahu have diametrically opposed understandings of the purpose of the talks and the agendas surrounding them.
Israel had agreed to the proximity talks as an opportunity to establish diplomatic terms of reference, goals and points of agreement and divergence in a run-up to possible direct negotiations with the PA leadership this summer, subject to the review and approval of the Arab League. Israel agreed to participate as part of its overall strategy to cooperate in US-led coalition building to isolate the Iranian regime. In this vein, the Sunni Arab powers also want the talks, and even more so, an agreement between the sides.
In contrast to Israel and the Arab League, the Palestinian leadership, and apparently now the US administration, view the indirect talks through a different lens: For Abbas and Fayyad, the Palestinian issue trumps all others, even Iran. Their goal is to lay down final Palestinian core issue demands, beginning with its insistence on the 1967 lines as the western border of their prospective state including the strategically vital Jordan Valley.
If Palestinian demands are left unmet, the PA would end all negotiations in July and move unilaterally to win international support for a Palestinian state. Abbas’s March 7 announcement that he is willing to swap 1.9 percent of Judea and Samaria in exchange for the same amount from pre-1967 lands is the latest indication that he wants to determine borders now, not after 16 weeks of indirect talks.
Other PA officials have stated publicly that they will seek unilaterally imposed statehood on the 1967 borders in the event that 16 weeks of indirect contacts fail. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said in early March that “Israel is not ready for the 1967 lines” while Abbas’s senior adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo reportedly threatened to go straight to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution recognizing “Palestine” on the 1967 lines if proximity talks fail.
THE PALESTINIAN bid is not new. It is based on Fayyad’s August 2009 unilateral statehood plan that has been embraced by the US and the EU. Palestinian unilateralism is also inspired by Kosovo’s February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia that Palestinian officials have publicly referred to and that had earned immediate US and European backing at the time.
The Palestinians tested the waters for its unilateral approach in late 2009 and found some international sympathy led by Spain’s former EU policy chief Javier Solana and current Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos. In November, the 27-member European Union foreign ministers council also adopted a resolution supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestine, thereby prejudging negotiations in favor of the Palestinians.

The Palestinian strategy is meant to hold the proximity talks overIsrael’s head as the “final straw” before seeking unilaterally toreplace UN Security Council Resolution 242 with a new draft resolutionthat could be submitted by the Arab League or a European power seekinginternational recognition of Palestine on the 1967 lines.

The Palestinians are also banking on Obama’s willingness to abstainfrom vetoing such a resolution in the event proximity talks collapse.That may now be far more feasible in light of the president’s latestdispleasure with Israel over the Ramat Shlomo building approval and theadministration’s expected irritation at the prospective failure of USmediation efforts by Middle East envoy George Mitchell to forge a peaceagreement over the next four months.

The writer is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs and asenior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.