Thursday, October 1, 2009

Obama Administration and Arab-Israeli Peace Process: Grinding to a Total and Humiliating Halt

By Barry Rubin

The newly elected Fatah Central Committee—the one that was supposedly made up of young, reform-minded moderates but actually isn’t—has told Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should absolutely not negotiate with Israel unless all building of apartments anywhere on the West Bank or in east Jerusalem comes to a complete halt.

That’s not going to happen.

This means there won’t be direct negotiations, totally contradicting President Barack Obama’s absolutely clear and “firm” statement at the UN that talks much, should, and will begin immediately.

It should be remembered that this whole construction on settlements freeze idea was started by Obama himself, thus giving the Palestinians an excuse not to talk. Israel refused (Pie in Face #1). Later he backed down a bit, saying that Israel should get something in exchange for the settlement freeze, but then Arab states refused (Pie in Face #2). So he backed down again, while pretending that somebody had offered to do something.

But while Israel is eager to negotiate (not because it expects anything will be achieved), the Palestinians flatly refuse (Pie in Face #3) and keep escalating their refusal.

Israel offers a compromise in which it makes real material concessions; Palestinians remain completely intransigent but merely complain that Israel hasn't given even more. Is there a pattern here?

Obama tried to solve the problem by working out some partial freeze with Israel, an idea to which the Israeli government has responded positively. But the Palestinians simply reject such a compromise. They don’t want a medium-sized unilateral Israeli concession but will only accept a very large unilateral Israeli concession, and then only as a basis for demanding more unilateral Israeli concessions.

So what are Obama’s options at this point?

Option 1: Go back to having a confrontation with Israel demanding it freeze construction and get nothing in return. That’s not going to happen.

Option 2: Criticize the Palestinian stand and pressure it (after all, the United States is providing all of its money or helping to raise it among allied countries) to go to talks. That’s not going to happen.

Option 3: Pretend everything is going well, have officials run around as if something is getting done, develop some new photo opportunities, and hope no one notices. Yep, that’s the one.

Here's how Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat put it: "There will not be Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Washington. There will be parallel American-Israeli negotiations and Palestinian-American negotiations." That sort of sets things back to the way they were around 1990.

After nine months in office and after having declared it would hit the ground running on Israel-Palestinian issues and get peace very fast, the Obama Administration has achieved nothing. In fact, it has set back the process and is getting less done than the supposedly criminally passive Bush Administration.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.

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