Like his Washington Post colleague David Ignatius, Jackson Diehl doesn’t think much of Obama’s effort to bash Israel over the settlements. That tactic, Diehl claims,”made sense, at first.” (Why exactly, he doesn’t make clear.) But then Obama and Hillary became ideologues about the whole thing, insisting on a “freeze”:
This absolutist position is a loser for three reasons. First, it has allowed Palestinian and Arab leaders to withhold the steps they were asked for; they claim to be waiting for the settlement “freeze” even as they quietly savor a rare public battle between Israel and the United States. Second, the administration’s objective — whatever its merits — is unobtainable. No Israeli government has ever agreed to an unconditional freeze, and no coalition could be assembled from the current parliament to impose one.
Finally, the extraction of a freeze from Netanyahu is, as a practical matter, unnecessary. While further settlement expansion needs to be curbed, both the Palestinian Authority and Arab governments have gone along with previous U.S.-Israeli deals by which construction was to be limited to inside the periphery of settlements near Israel — since everyone knows those areas will be annexed to Israel in a final settlement.
And then there is the little matter of reneging on our prior agreements and the unseemly spectacle of “dictating” to our ally. As Diehl points out, the Obama team has felt compelled to “keep raising the stakes” in public (denying the existence of past agreements and emphasizing that the U.S. ultimatum include East Jerusalem). Hence, the folks who don’t like “false choices” have created a disagreeable one for themselves: “a choice between a protracted confrontation with Israel — an odd adventure given the pressing challenges from Iran and in Iraq, not to mention the disarray of the Palestinian camp — or a compromise, which might make Obama look weak and provide Arab states further cause to refuse cooperation.”
Diehl’s solution is to make a “quick deal” while everyone is distracted by Iran. (The Palestinians then won’t notice that Obama looks “weak”?).
Diehl is rather restrained in his analysis and perhaps unduly optimistic in his prediction that the Obama team will retreat from its current approach. After all, we are told Obama’s policy stems from his long-held, but only recently revealed, conception of the Middle East conflict. And he did feature his settlement dictate prominently in his Cairo speech. So a hasty retreat would prove embarrassing indeed.
Nevertheless, let’s hope Diehl is right and the Obama team figures out how to reverse course on this one. In a foreign policy debut littered with many bobbles and missteps, none is as problematic as the administration’s policy regarding Israel — or as destined to result in failure.