Monday, November 22, 2010

The Great Mystery: What's The Obama Administration Up To On Israel-Palestinian Talks?

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By Barry Rubin

Letters I receive from readers mainly focus on asking me what I think about the U.S.-Israel-PA negotiations about getting back to...negotiations. What is my view of this big deal that's being discussed for a three-month freeze on Israeli construction?

My response has been that until we have a clear, authoritative, and detailed description of what's being asked and offered, there's no sense in analyzing it.

Yet something very strange is going on. Before November, I pointed out that the urgent U.S. demand for a two-month freeze was a desperate attempt by the Obama Administration to be able to claim some diplomatic victory before what looked beforehand (and proved to be) a disastrous election. After all, what other possible explanation could there be for giving a lot to get Israel to stop building any apartments in the West Bank for eight weeks?   There was no conceivable diplomatic payoff in terms of U.S. national interests or Middle Eastern peacekeeping to justify such a move.

So what can one say of offering even more after the election for a twelve-week-long freeze?

All of the answers are seemingly ridiculous, though that doesn't make them any the less possible.

First, the administration may have become so obsessed with getting a freeze and restarting negotiations, as an end to themselves though in part for reasons of prestige, that they have lost all proportion in this regard. If this is true--and given the administration's past record it might be true--the current U.S. government is incompetent.

Second, the administration may actually believe that if it can only get the two sides back to the table the impetus toward peace is so great that a couple of meetings will set off lightbulbs in the heads of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that say: Hey, this is easy! What have we been waiting for! Let's make peace! If this is the true factor in administration thinking, the current U.S. government is incompetent.

American presidents don't spend vast resources in order to look good on Monday when the same matter will make them look stupid on Thursday.  Yet this has happened with President Barack Obama, notably in his September 2009 announcement that there would be some new high-level, intensive Camp David talks eight weeks later when no such outcome was likely. Whether such behavior is due to arrogance, ideological blindness, or some other factor isn't important.

There is a third possibility, however, that should be added. A lot of my readers will favor this one but I think it is the least likely. Despite rumors and speculation that the administration is making various demands for huge concessions on Israel. But if that were true the Israeli government would not be seriously considering the deal and there would be multiple leaks from officials opposing any such arrangement.

In this scenario, the Obama Administration may decide to try to impose some kind of solution on both sides. There are two potential variations on this theme. One would be trying to get the declaration of a Palestinian state without boundaries; the other would be to try to impose a comprehensive solution.

If this is the goal guiding administration thinking, the current U.S. government is incompetent, stupid, and dangerous.  The most likely outcome of this scenario is that the administration will fall on its face very badly. The other is that it would significantly damage the regional strategic balance, promote instability, and create a disaster for U.S. interests.

All of the details and leaks, however, seem to point to the first two scenarios as being most likely. It is hard to be too specific since we don't know all the details but here's an example. Consider the issue of whether Jerusalem would be included in the freeze. If the U.S. government insists on including it, Israel's government probably wouldn't agree but if Washington doesn't so insist the PA will use this as a pretext not to talk.

Or suppose the United States and Israel do come to an agreement, it is likely that the PA would deliberately raise demands that were so high that the United States couldn't meet them. For, as I've been reporting for years, the key element here is that the PA doesn't want a deal, or at least not a deal that would make it impossible to launch a phase two campaign in future to eliminate Israel altogether.

Another element is that the U.S. government might present as a generous offer selling Israel things, like arms supplies to maintain Israel's military superiority, that have been taken for granted in the past relationship. This is no great deal but a significant retreat from the relationship as it has functioned for decades.

What is most likely to happen is this: the United States will give various gifts to both sides and the talks either will not be renewed (for a long time) and if they are will quickly fail. Since everybody should already know this then why all the diplomatic frenzy?

It's better to learn the lesson: there isn't going to be any Israel-Palestinian peace or dramatic progress for years. Policy should be adjusted accordingly to maximize stability, minimize violence, and do the best possible job of promoting U.S. interests in the region on all of the vital issues of today.

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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