Commentary Magazine


RE: The Same Mistake

It is not simply that Obama keeps making the same mistake — public demands on Israel for pre-negotiation concessions that no Israeli prime minister would accept, nor could accept once the demands were made public — but that Obama made an even more fundamental error from the very beginning: redefining a realistic “settlement freeze” into an unrealistic “construction freeze.”

During the Bush administration, there was an informal understanding that a “settlement freeze” meant no new settlements and no expansion of the boundaries of existing ones. Such a definition permitted normal construction within existing areas without reducing the area that might eventually be transferred to a future Palestinian state. It enabled Israel to accept the Roadmap and then to engage in the Annapolis Process — which produced still another offer of a Palestinian state on nearly the entire West Bank — and thus demonstrated that settlements were not an obstacle to the peace process. On the contrary, the major settlement blocs were either adjacent to the Green Line or located in strategically important areas that — as the 2004 Bush letter formally recognized — were going to be retained by Israel in any foreseeable peace agreement.

Obama decided to renege on that understanding, declined to endorse the Bush letter itself, and proceeded to embark on successive attempts to stop all settlement building — resulting in the ludicrous situation of George Mitchell suggesting that a freeze in “natural growth” meant a restriction on the number of births within the settlements. Obama then created a major diplomatic crisis out of an administrative announcement of future construction in a Jewish area of Jerusalem. This month, he publicly castigated the settlements in a formal speech at the UN, seemingly oblivious to the effect his words have on the Palestinian insistence that Israel concede a fundamental issue before negotiations have begun.

There is a logical way out of this morass — simply revert to the definition of a “settlement freeze” that previously governed the peace process and that permitted it to proceed without concessions on the issue by either side. But this would require Obama to acknowledge that he inherited a solution from George W. Bush and substituted a mess.