Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Israel-Palestinian Talks: It’s the U.S. Election Stupid!

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By Barry Rubin

The New York Times tries to figure out the answer to the question I asked: Why is President Barack Obama not only putting so much prestige into quickly resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict but doing so at a moment when the prospects for success look so minimal?

And on top of that:

Why is he asking Israel for a two-month, one-time, non-renewable freeze of construction on West Bank Jewish settlements?

Why is he offering Israel so much to do something that will lead to two months of talks after which the negotiations will certainly collapse?

Why is he offering the Palestinian Authority so much to stay in the talks for eight weeks and then walk out, no hard feelings?

The headline is, “Risks and Advantage in U.S. Effort in Mideast.” So what’s the possible advantage? A big breakthrough to peace in eight weeks?

What possible gain could be made by holding just four (count `em, four) short meetings and then ending the freeze and letting everyone walk away, keeping the goodies the administration has given them?

Naturally, the Times blames the problems only on Israel, or in the words of Mark Landler’s article, “With the negotiations deadlocked over the issue of Jewish settlements.” But they are also deadlocked over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) evident desire to find some excuse to get out of negotiations that it stalled until the previous nine-month freeze was within hours of ending.

Somehow the reporters never seem to get the story about how the PA daily broadcasts, teaches, and sermonizes that all of Israel is part of Palestine. As in the repeatedly broadcast geography lesson on official PA television:

"The West Bank and Gaza have another section in Palestine which is the Palestinian coast that spreads along the [Mediterranean] sea, from....Ashkelon in the south, until Haifa, in the Carmel Mountains. Haifa is a well-known Palestinian port. [Haifa] enjoyed a high status among Arabs and Palestinians especially before it fell to the occupation [Israel] in 1948. To its north, we find Acre. East of Acre, we reach a city with history and importance, the city of Tiberias, near a famous lake, the Sea of Galilee. Jaffa, an ancient coastal city, is the bride of the sea, and Palestine's gateway to the world."

Still, that’s not what’s most important here. This article is about the mystery of why the Obama Administration is so obsessed about making progress (or, more accurately, to pretend to be making progress) in the next few weeks. 

Landler continues:

“But even if [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] signs on, some analysts predict that the two sides will end up in the same cul-de-sac in two months. Mr. Abbas, several people said, has told associates that he feels that he has no choice but to keep pushing for a freeze, largely because the Obama administration made settlements the centerpiece of its first 10 months of Middle East diplomacy.”

At least we clear see how much of this is Obama’s fault for making settlements the critical issue. Yet after interviewing the usual suspects, the author never gets close to guessing at the administration’s motivation or strategy or goal.

Indeed, it accepts the administration’s framework. Perhaps the fact that the two sides don’t want to alienate Washington would lead them to keep talking? But the Times doesn’t see the brontosaurus, the blue whale (the word elephant is insufficient here) in the small one-bedroom apartment:

Why two months? Why two months? Why two months? (There’s not only a blue whale but also an echo in here.)

If I were telling this as a joke I would scream the punchline:


Nope, no domestic politics going on here! Yes, we know the big issue is jobs and the economy. On foreign policy, administration supporters will talk about making America popular again, withdrawing from Iraq, and standing firm in Afghanistan.

Yet the administration has made the Arab-Israeli conflict its principal international issue. What possible diplomatic success can it find to put on display? And how would it look if the “peace process” would collapse and it could be pointed out that Obama wrecked any chance by his emphasis on settlements and distancing from Israel?

Hmm, maybe it would be enough to keep Israel and the Palestinian Authority just to keep pretending there will be more negotiations for another 2.5 weeks?

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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