Commentary Magazine


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Proximity Talks Aren’t a “Step Backward” for Obama

I write this only because it keeps being claimed (here is a new example) that the start of “proximity talks” between Israelis and Palestinians is an unfortunate retrogression in the peace process. There certainly have been many foolish plays on President Obama’s part that have led to this point, but he is doing a good job of turning lemons into lemonade. Here is State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley issuing an unconcealed threat:

“As both parties know, if either takes significant actions during the proximity talks that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will respond to hold them accountable and ensure that negotiations continue,” Crowley said.

The peace processors have seen negotiations, summits, unilateral disengagement, and all the rest fail; it never matters, of course, because they’re always willing to go back into the laboratory and come up with a new formula of diplomacy and concessions and inducements and confidence-building measures and bridging proposals that will finally make it work.

The newest formula is contained in a statement that has become fashionable among peace processors, which goes something like this: “Everyone knows what a deal would look like. We just have to get the two sides to make the hard choices.” If you believe this, you probably also believe that the peace process, as it’s existed since the beginning of Oslo, has always had America in the wrong role — that of facilitator and cajoler, not as the father figure laying down the law with a shotgun on the table.

And if you’re Barack Obama, you’ve always dreamed of imposing terms on the Israelis (and to a lesser degree, the Palestinians). And now the problems you provoked give you the opportunity to do that which has always been lacking. For Obama, the proximity talks are a win, because they liberate the United States from the strictures of its previous approach. It’s true that proximity talks are a reversion to an era when Israelis and Palestinians weren’t even sitting at the same table. But Barack Obama wasn’t president back then.