Obama’s Conspicuous Failure
January 30, 2010
From rich sounding promises, Obama’s Israel-Palestine policy appears reduced to simply managing, not resolving, the conflict, writes Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank
The conspicuous failure of the latest visit to the region by US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell raises questions as to the Obama administration’s ability — or even willingness — to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. Prior to his arrival, Mitchell was widely thought to be carrying “serious ideas” that would help resume stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, after meetings with both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, it became clear that the American envoy was near completely empty handed, and that he was succumbing to Israeli intransigence. Seeking to obscure his surrender to Israeli whims, Mitchell tried to cajole the increasingly vulnerable Palestinian leadership to resume the moribund peace process without receiving any guarantees that renewed talks would go anywhere.
Mitchell pressed the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel to start “low level talks” which he suggested might help leaders tackle the hard issues. However, in making such suggestions, Mitchell seemed to have forgotten that his proposal had been tried numerous times before but to no avail, mainly due to Israel’s refusal to give up the spoils of the 1967 war.
Mitchell also offered the PA leadership what one Palestinian official termed “secondary inducements” to return to the negotiating table with Israel, including enhancing Palestinian mobility in the West Bank and allowing PA police to operate in additional localities. But Mitchell refused to commit himself to pressure Israel to freeze settlement expansion and reportedly tried to circumvent the issue, saying that the sides would discuss the issue in bilateral negotiations.
Mitchell also suggested that the sides initiate “indirect talks”. The Israelis described the proposal as “interesting” while the PA called it “totally pointless”.
As Mitchell arrived in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a plethora of provocative and uncompromising — even pugnacious — statements, suggesting that Israel will never agree to the establishment of a truly viable Palestinian state. Marking a Jewish holiday at the settlement of Gush Etzion north of Hebron, Netanyahu declared that, “we are here to stay” and “this [settlement] is Jerusalem’s southern gate while Maali Adumim is Jerusalem’s eastern gate.”
Earlier, he stated that, “in the context of any peace arrangement, Israel would completely surround any Palestinian entity from all sides,” adding that Israel would have to maintain a “presence” in “Judea and Samaria” (the biblical names of the West Bank).
Maintaining a broad smile throughout his visit, Mitchell didn’t try to challenge Netanyahu and instead kept repeating old platitudes about the continued commitment of the Obama administration to Palestinian-Israeli peace. However, it was obvious that at least some of Mitchell’s Arab interlocutors were exasperated, having seen the Obama administration waste precious time while Israel steals more Arab land.
One Palestinian official in Ramallah remarked: “Every new visit by Mitchell makes the prospect of resolving the conflict more elusive.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained bitterly that all that Mitchell wanted was to force the PA to absorb Israeli provocations.
The growing defiance displayed by Netanyahu finds encouragement in what is widely seen here as Netanyahu’s “victory” over Obama in the apparent tug-of-war between them over a settlement expansion freeze. Obama had been demanding that Israel freeze all settlement expansion in the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem. However, Netanyahu refused to budge. Eventually, it was Obama who really budged, allowing Netanyahu to emerge victorious.
To be sure, Netanyahu made a half-hearted decision to freeze some settlement building for 10 months. However, that freeze was disingenuous to a large extent, given continued building in numerous locations, as revealed by Israeli peace groups such as the Peace Now movement. On Tuesday, 26 January, the veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar argued that, “only an idiot would say Israel has frozen settlements.”
Recently, Netanyahu has also been encouraged by Obama’s lost Democratic majority in Congress, which the Israeli premier hopes will make it impossible for the US administration to take decisions Israel doesn’t like. Moreover, Obama’s own admission that he had underestimated the hardship of making peace in the Middle East seems to militate in Netanyahu’s favour, as he is interpreting this as a vindication of his policy of “playing it tough”, not only with the Palestinians but also with the Americans.
In a recent interview with Time magazine, Obama admitted that his attempts to break the deadlock in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations by pressuring the Israeli government to end the construction of Jewish colonies have failed. The US president said he raised expectations of a breakthrough too high because he underestimated the obstacles involved.
“This is just really hard. This is as intractable a problem as you get. If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”
Upset by the belated realisation that Mitchell’s main goal is to “keep the process going”, the Palestinian leadership of PA President Mahmoud Abbas is finding itself at a loss as to what to do in light of Obama’s failure. Reacting to Netanyahu’s remarks about Israel’s intention to annex large chunks of the West Bank, Palestinian officials countered: “This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table.”
Nabil Abu Rudeina, an aide to Abbas, added that the PA was still insistent that the resumption of the peace process would have to be preceded by a comprehensive settlement freeze. However, in order to avoid being accused of stonewalling and impeding peace, the PA is demanding that the US steps in and declare the endgame of the process, in which case the suspension of settlement expansion would no longer be a Palestinian pre-condition.
Regardless, only political novices think that a US declaration of the “endgame” would overcome the huge conceptual gap between the two sides, and Israel’s dominant influence over US politics and policies. Hence, most observers believe the Obama administration will merely continue to “manage” the conflict, not resolve it. The Obama administration might also seek a more “malleable” Palestinian leadership — one not answerable to the Palestinian masses, or even Fatah.
Such a scenario would undoubtedly generate a lot of frustration, anger and tension in occupied Palestine and throughout much of the Middle East, and might trigger a new wave of violence against US interests here and beyond. Moreover, the collapse of the peace process, even if kept alive by artificial means, would seriously undermine the credibility and survival of pro-US regimes in the region while bolstering the appeal of resistance groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah.