Analysis: An Obama time-out? Unthinkable

By David Horovitz November 10, 2009

Thomas Friedman’s call for a US diplomatic disengagement from Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts contrasts starkly with the president’s own declared priorities

Barely had he landed in the United States and maybe snatched a few hours’ sleep when Nir Hefetz, a senior media adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was back on the phone to Israel Radio Monday morning, taking issue with Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times column on the moribund peace process.
Friedman had suggested, in a column over the weekend headlined ‘Call White House, Ask for Barack,’ that the US seemed to want an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation ‘more than the parties do.’

If the Israelis and the Palestinians find the status quo this tolerable, the columnist urged, ‘let them enjoy it… If and when they get serious, they’ll find us.’ For now, Friedman advised, ‘it’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional ‘peace process,’ which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility.’

Predictably, Hefetz’s response, coming as his boss prepared for his belatedly finalized Monday night meeting with President Barack Obama, was an outraged wail of defense.

‘Nobody wants peace more than the people of Israel, the Israeli government and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,’ he insisted, citing Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution, his steps to improve day-to-day life in the West Bank, and his readiness to resume talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas immediately and without preconditions.

Far from both sides being equally to blame for the deadlock, Hefetz continued, Friedman ought to be placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Abbas, who was setting ‘preconditions that have been unheard of in 16 years’ – a reference to the PA’s demand for a full settlement freeze.

If it was unsurprising that the prime minister’s spokesman would admit to no blame at all on the Israeli side – not even in the failure to honor the repeated pledge to tackle illegal settlement outposts – there was a certain validity to much of Hefetz’s defense, and a certain weakness to parts of Friedman’s thesis.

Even if one argues that Abbas did not have confidence in the capacity of Ehud Olmert to implement the unprecedentedly generous peace terms that he offered in the twilight of his prime ministership, the fact unmentioned by Friedman is that Israel offered a very real deal, and Abbas turned it down.

The influential columnist approvingly cited an assertion that he said was making the rounds at the State Department, to the effect that the Palestinian leadership ‘wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations,’ while Israel’s leadership ‘wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.’

And he went on to claim: ‘It is obvious that this Israeli government believes it can have peace with the Palestinians and keep the West Bank, this Palestinian Authority still can’t decide whether to reconcile with the Jewish state or criminalize it and this Hamas leadership would rather let Palestinians live forever in the hellish squalor that is Gaza than give up its crazy fantasy of an Islamic Republic in Palestine.’

Spot on, as regards the PA and Hamas. But Netanyahu’s endorsement of Palestinian statehood stemmed from his reluctant acknowledgement that, never mind peace, we can’t have a Jewish, democratic Israel and keep the West Bank. True, the prime minister has made plain he’d try to drive a harder bargain over territorial compromise than his immediate predecessor, but compromise, he knows, there emphatically will have to be.
‘My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians,’ Netanyahu reiterated in his address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly hours before his White House meeting, ‘and soon.’

Strangely urging the very diplomatic disengagement for which Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush was so protractedly excoriated, Friedman was also curiously sparing as regards the Obama administration’s role in the current deadlock. Washington’s demand for a full settlement freeze – as opposed to a freeze outside the major blocs and east Jerusalem – was plainly counterproductive. A moderated demand would have garnered considerable support in Israel, and the prime minister would have been hard-pressed to refuse it. The full-freeze demand prompted a predictable no from Netanyahu. And that, in turn, saw Abbas ruling out what might otherwise have been the unremarkable resumption of talks that had been conducted with such regularity in the Olmert era.

Perhaps Washington’s evident reluctance to arrange the Monday night Obama-Netanyahu meeting, combined with Abbas’s latest threats to resign, are designed to pressure Netanyahu into giving more ground on the matter of a settlement freeze. Friedman’s article, with its encouragement of a White House time-out, might be intended to have a similar effect.

But the column’s central suggestion, that Nobel Peace laureate Obama actually disengage from the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, is thoroughly improbable – however the president may assess the two sides’ readiness for progress.

This, after all, is an administration whose officials – in stark contrast to the initial approach of the Bush administration – lay repeated stress on the centrality of Israeli-Palestinian progress to stability in the Middle East and beyond. This is a president who, the last time he sat with Netanyahu at the White House, in May, firmly rebuffed the prime minister’s contention that there was little prospect of substantive progress with the Palestinians so long as Iran was traveling along the nuclear path and emboldening Hamas and Islamists everywhere.

‘If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli- Palestinian peace process,’ Obama mused then, ‘I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis – then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat.’

It is exceedingly difficult to square that presidential conviction with Friedman’s new call for a time-out on the peace process. Unless, that is, we should be reading Friedman’s column as inadvertent recognition that, when gauging how to prioritize between Israeli- Palestinian peace and thwarting the Iranian nuclear bid, Netanyahu had the equation the right way round.

© The Jerusalem Post