Leslie Gelb fervently hopes that “the Obama administration did not shove Palestinians and Israelis into direct talks, for the first time in over two years, just to get them talking to each other.” Umm … but there really isn’t any evidence to the contrary, is there? No, sighs Gelb, there isn’t:
Many officials tell me that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came close to giving Mr. Obama any specific indications of compromise in their White House meetings two weeks ago. In other words, neither offered any concrete basis for accommodation. They spoke only of being serious and bargaining in good faith, the usual stuff. Nor did either leader push Mr. Obama into these talks; Mr. Obama pushed them. Netanyahu wasn’t eager for talks at all, and Abbas favored them only with good and prior indications of success.
In fact, a PA official told the Jerusalem Post that “he had ‘no explanation’ for why some US government officials were sounding optimistic about the direct talks.” That may be the most honest statement ever uttered by a Palestinian spokesman in the past 60 years.
As many of us predicted, Obama, a peace-process worshiper of the first order, and his envoy, who is convinced that if he solved the Northern Ireland crisis he can bring peace to the Middle East, are now facing the collapse of their 18-month venture into Middle East policymaking. (By the way, given Mitchell’s performance in the Middle East, do you get the feeling that the settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict was coincidental to, not a result of, his presence?) Gelb, as many of us on the right have argued, explains why peace talks can be quite dangerous if you really don’t know what you’re doing:
The real danger between these two star-crossed inhabitants of the same Holy Land is not failure to negotiate; it’s the failure of the negotiations. Flashpoints in the Holy Land tend to burst after they sit down at the negotiating table, give their speeches, fail to agree, and watch the process collapse. That is when the explosions begin. That is when Palestinian terrorism reignites in Israel. People tend to resort to violence when their hopes and expectations are dashed formally and frontally, not when they are merely hoping.
Actually, in this case, “people” don’t — the Palestinians do. (There’s no Jewish intifada.) And the Palestinians also resorted to violence in anticipation of the talks. Really, any excuse will do.
The collapse of the talks would not merely raise the specter of another intifada; it would threaten to decimate what is left of the president’s prestige and credibility. Hence, Gelb sees reason for Bibi to spare Obama that humiliation:
The Israeli hawk understands full well, though he doesn’t like it, that he must burnish and safekeep ties with America. For the time being, that requires good ties with Mr. Obama, whom Netanyahu and his fellow hawks don’t like very much. To them, Mr. Obama sounded too pro-Arab in his first years in office, and they don’t have much trust in him. So, they have to get along with him well enough for at least another year – or until the American presidential election season erupts. At that point, these particular Israelis will pray for rain and a Republican president.
But, of course, both sides must stay in the room, and so far it seems that Abbas is itching to get out.
This brings us back to Gelb’s concern: maybe the Obami had not a clue what they were doing and now have a mess they are not equipped to clean up. And gosh, maybe the same is true of Iran. Perhaps they were silly to assume that engagement and Swiss-cheese sanctions were going to work to disarm the mullahs and now have no idea what to do. To be blunt, the president’s supporters and even some critics have both assumed that there is at work here a level of foreign policy competence and clearheadedness that may not, in fact, exist. Gelb hints that what we are dealing with are rank and arrogant amateurs. Yes, it’s scary.