By DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD
Leave it to the hapless Mahmoud Abbas to make Binyamin Netanyahu look like a peacenik. And leave it to a bumbling, uncertain US administration to give the two leaders a chance to do what neither wants: enter into serious, intensive negotiations.
Netanyahu ran for office refusing to commit to a two-state solution, opposing any restrictions on settlement construction and calling for a halt to negotiations with the Palestinians. He immediately encountered a new American administration determined to go in the opposite direction, but with an unclear understanding of what it would take to get there.
Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, enthusiastically embraced the American call for a settlement freeze, particularly in Jerusalem, and added some terms of his own: an Israeli commitment to return to the 1967 borders and resuming talks where they'd ended when he turned down the proposal of the previous Israeli government (an offer Netanyahu had successfully campaigned against). Abbas also conveniently ignored his own obligations as part of any peace process, and the new administration played willing enabler by neglecting to press the issue.
The administration had plunged into Middle East peacemaking without a carefully prepared strategy. Former senator George Mitchell, who was named special Mideast envoy on Obama's first full day in office, had long considered stopping settlement construction the key to peace and was behind demands for a total freeze, but the strategy didn't seem to go any further than that.
Netanyahu, who was elected less than a month later, suspected the Obama administration was trying to bring down his government before it even got started. Mistrust on both sides, particularly disparaging anti-Obama leaks reportedly out of the Prime Minister's Office, fueled the animosity and led to the brink of crisis.
Netanyahu, who has a reputation for buckling under pressure, began looking for a way to avoid being turned out by voters a second time for mishandling the American account. He finally, albeit reluctantly, embraced the two-state approach and eventually a partial settlement freeze, although more begrudgingly than graciously, costing him much of the credit he sought.
BUT THAT doesn't excuse the administration's bungling of its own laudable effort to relaunch a peace process moribund for most of the previous eight years. After assuring Abbas of its commitment to a settlement freeze, the administration began retreating, leaving the Palestinian leader alone with no way out that wasn't political suicide.
For 16 years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, settlement expansion had not been a barrier to talks. Now it was. What changed was Abbas' Fatah party faced a tough battle with the Islamist Hamas for control of the PA and the Palestinian national movement, and with elections expected in mid-2010 both sides focused on showing how tough they can be.
Hamas celebrated its 22nd anniversary this week declaring its goal remains "liberating all of Palestine." Like its Iranian patron, it is committed to wiping Israel off the map. The group controls all of Gaza and is pushing into the West Bank.
Abbas tried to sound tough by threatening to unilaterally declare statehood, but that was quickly shot down by the Americans and Europeans.
Neither Israel nor the US wants Abbas to fail. The settlement moratorium was the result not only of prodding from the Obama administration but also from Netanyahu's own security establishment concerned about shoring up Abbas and moderate forces in the face of Hamas.
President Barack Obama gave himself "a solid B-plus" grade for his first year in office; a generous grade for his Middle East policy would be an incomplete.
There's no shortage of rumors about what comes next: the administration is fed up with all players and plans to take a hiatus until they're ready to get serious; the administration is preparing its own peace plan (maybe in cooperation with the Europeans or the Russians) to push on both sides; and the administration is going to shift its attention from the Palestinians to the Syrian track.
No one knows for sure. Possibly not even the president himself.
WHAT DOES seem clear is that he needs to replace his failed approach with a carefully designed peace strategy, and it should begin with a long overdue trip to Israel to speak directly to the Israeli people and convince them of his support, sincerity and intentions.
Netanyahu has challenged Abbas to "seize the opportunity" to "move toward peace," but the Palestinian leader's refusal to meet him halfway makes him look like he isn't serious about wanting peace and that, like Yasser Arafat before him, he continues to hold out hope that the rest of the world will deliver Israel to him without having to negotiate or compromise. That's a desert mirage that will only lead to disaster.
Abbas has handed Bibi what no one would have believed - the credibility to claim he has no partner for peace. But there's ample reason to believe Netanyahu, too, is maneuvering for position, not working to revive peace talks - all the more reason for the Obama administration to get its Middle East house in order and generate tough and realistic policies, not the amateurish improvisation we've seen so far.
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