The summit President Obama convened Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fell well short of the administration’s hopes. Mr. Obama had wanted to announce agreement on the opening of talks on the creation of a Palestinian state, with a deadline of two years. He wanted to outline agreements on how those negotiations would proceed and some of the principles that would underpin them. And he expected to reveal a series of opening confidence-building measures by the two sides, including a freeze on Israeli settlement construction and steps toward normalization by several Arab states.
Actually, all he got was a photo opportunity, the Post‘s editors concede. They rightly see that the failure is indicative of the “difficulties” and the “miscalculations” the Obama team is encountering. This is the president who boldly declared his intent to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel and who directed American Jewish leaders to engage in some self-reflection. The Obama strategy, as many of us argued, was badly conceived and poorly executed (a familiar combination when you look at every aspect of his foreign policy—from missile defense to Honduras):
Mr. Obama and his aides assumed that Israelis and Arab governments around the region would welcome an aggressive effort by the new U.S. president to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a practical matter, that hasn’t proved true. Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing government would prefer to bolster Mr. Abbas’s government economically before beginning final peace talks; Mr. Abbas himself has been preoccupied with consolidating his own authority and gaining the upper hand over the rival Hamas movement. Their rhetoric aside, leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia appear — like Israel — much more concerned with how the Obama administration will handle the threat of Iran.
The administration also concluded, wrongly, that obtaining an unconditional Israeli settlement freeze was an essential first step. In fact settlements are no longer a strategic obstacle to peace; as a practical matter, most of the construction is in areas that will not be part of a Palestinian state. The administration’s inflexible stance, unwisely spelled out in public by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, led to an unwinnable confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu, turned Israeli public opinion against Mr. Obama and prompted Palestinians to harden their own position. The compromise now being discussed between Washington and Jerusalem will differ little from past deals.
Who bears the responsibility for this debacle? Well, some combination of Rahm Emanuel—who thought he had Bibi and domestic Israeli politics figured out—Clinton and Mitchell devised this un-smart approach to diplomacy. But ultimately it is the president’s vision, longstanding and formed in the cocoon of Hyde Park, we are told, that is at the heart of the issue.
Obama neither understands nor is willing to state that the Jewish state’s legitimacy is built on more that Holocaust sympathy. He casts the Palestinians in the role of oppressed people, analogous to that of enslaved American blacks. He seems not to appreciate or absorb the lessons of multiple administrations and the Palestinians’ predilection for embracing victimhood and rejectionism. In short, he has adopted the Palestinian paradigm, viewing Israel in much the same way they do—occupier, bully, obstructionist. And it has led Obama, just as it has led the Palestinians time and time again, into a cul-de-sac. Peace is not coming from a photo op, but neither is it coming from the umpteenth round of “peace talks,” not until the real issues—terrorism and the refusal to recognize the Jewish state (not to mention the problem of Hamas and the unhelpful indifference of the Arab states)—are resolved.
Might the president learn from his embarrassment? Perhaps. But he’s more likely to do what seems to be his default approach to foreign policy—retreat and go on TV to talk about health-care reform.