Last week the Obama administration gave up on its effort to persuade the government of Israel to commit to another (90-day) construction freeze of Israeli housing in the occupied West Bank. In so doing, SecState Hilary Clinton has abandoned a policy that was at the cornerstone of the new Obama approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This approach was based on the firm conviction that illegal Israeli settlements are the foremost impediment to a successful process. As this policy was applied by the Obama White House over the last 2 years -- sometimes quite forcefully, with both carrot and stick -- there were many advocates for Israel who pushed back hard against it. They argued that the settlement issue was a diversion and a smokescreen, a knee-jerk sympathizing with the Palestinian bargaining position designed to let the Palestinians off the hook, while exerting maximal pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other commentators and observers thought the new-found emphasis on Israeli settlement construction was precisely the right antidote for a sclerotic process that had completely bogged down during President George W. Bush's watch.
The Netanyahu government resisted the first settlement freeze, and actually subverted it while it was supposedly in place. Construction of Israeli housing hardly slowed during the 10 months of the first freeze. Netanyahu argued that of greater importance to the peace process than settlements are the question of security guarantees and the need for the Palestinian leadership to confess that it recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu seemed to accept, then quibble over, a very unusual package of diplomatic and military bribes offered up by Clinton to make a 2nd fake moratorium possible.
For its part, the Abbas governmental entity (what the hell do we call an "Authority"?) frittered away 8.5 of the 10 months of the first quasi-settlement freeze. However imperfect that freeze might have been, eventually the Palestinians did accept it as sufficient, but only at the very last minute and under the cover of Arab League acquiescence, and only to see if they could get the Americans to force the Israelis to extend it. You could argue, as I have, that all 3 parties were not intent on peace processing, but on other matters.
Now that this two-year policy of "settlements first" is formally kaput, folks are asking is this good for peace or bad for peace? Is this a breakdown or is this an opportunity? Another question posed (as always when an American diplomatic initiative publicly crashes and burns) is: who is to blame?
There is a view of the conflict to which I subscribe which goes like this: the various parties (Hamas, PNA, Israel, the Arab states) hate each other so much that only the threat and actual carrying out of bloody costly warfare will drive them to the table. Israelis argue that the only thing the "Arab mind" understands is brutal force, but it is equally true that the only thing that pushes Israelis off their complacency is violence. When things are good, no one negotiates. But if the beaker gets close to boiling, the various leaderships grasp at the first imperfect diplomatic proposal that comes along. Absent debilitating violence, the parties simply carry on with their hatreds, distrusts, and humiliation.
So that brings us to today.
Arguing that the "settlement first" fiasco is a setback & that the blame lies with the government of Israel, is veteran observer Tom Friedman of The New York Times. Friedman argues a position that has been taken before by various spurned Secretaries of State. My favorite version of the "just walk away" approach is James Baker's sarcastic public announcement in 1990 of the White House phone number: "When Israel is interested in peace, they can give us a call."
Arguing that this is a welcome opportunity & that it is the Palestinians and the Obama administration to blame for the impasse, is Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a pro-Israel echo chamber if there ever was one). With rose-colored glasses, this breakdown becomes a wonderful possibility for the Israeli sequence of issues to become triumphant.
Now Obama & Clinton aren't exactly walking away. George Mitchell is back in the region to pursue something even less than "proximity talks," and so is veteran processor Dennis Ross. Neither Obama or Clinton is publicly blaming Israel for the breakdown. But given the relative weakness of the parties (a split Palestinian community closer to civil war than reconciliation & a tottering-to-the-right Israeli coalition that can barely survive a forest fire), I think there is only one way to see these developments -- this is a humongus breakdown which marks the end of Barack Obama's engagement with the Arab-Israeli conflict. And I think that while blame can be apportioned to the fecklessness of all involved, Netanyahu deserves the "wag of the finger" here.
George W. Bush came to the conflict late in his presidency, and Barack Obama came early. It doesn't matter -- nothing came of either approach. J Street to the contrary, there is no bold move left to pursue, no messianic alternative for Obama to try.
For that matter, the efforts of every American president since Richard Nixon to "solve" the AI conflict have ended in smoldering ruins. The AI conflict is a diplomat's heroin addiction. They can't help it. But it is time to say just say no. Not with these players.