Jonathan, President Obama’s statement about his meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders today can be easily mistaken as meaningless, given its recitation of hoary peace-process platitudes. But there is an important nugget buried in the clichés. He said:
Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security, but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity, but they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues. And it remains important for the Arab states to take concrete steps to promote peace. [Emphasis mine]
And so the climbdown begins. The words in these types of statements are chosen carefully. Compare today’s statement with any one of the Obama administration’s previous demands for a complete settlement freeze, such as when Secretary of State Clinton said in May that the administration “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions.”
Eli Lake reports exclusively today that Israel is offering a six-to-nine-month accommodation that would stop settlement activity, except in Jerusalem and the 2,500 housing units already slated for construction. If true, this strikes me as a shrewd Israeli move. It will shift the pressures created by anticipation of the peace process onto Obama and the Arabs, who now must respond by either betraying their initial demands or by digging in and exposing themselves to blame for being unwilling to compromise.
The strategic foolishness of Obama’s opening settlement-freeze gambit should now be fully in view: the Palestinians, of course, responded by seconding the demand and insisting that negotiations would not proceed until Israel complied. Obama seems to have believed he could strong-arm Netanyahu into obedience, at which point the negotiations would start, from Obama’s perspective, on the right track—with a big Israeli concession. Everything depended on a total Obama victory in this opening round.
But now, bowing to political reality, it seems that Obama has given up his opening demand for a complete freeze and seeks only that Israel “restrain” settlement activity, which the Israelis appear willing to do. If this happens, the process will turn back on Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas will be forced to choose between rejecting the entire peace process on the absurd grounds that 100 percent of his demands weren’t met, or abandoning his maximalist position and being humiliated in front of Hamas. Either way, the peace process is becoming far more damaging to Abbas than it is to Bibi. What’s truly staggering, as Elliott Abrams predicted would happen all the way back in July, is that it is President Obama who forced the Palestinians into this corner.