Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Abbas: Full Settlement Freeze Was Obama’s Invention

The background on Obama’s 2009 and 2010 diplomatic offensives against Israel are now well-known enough that the narrative is inching toward conventional wisdom. The president entered the White House intent on putting daylight between the United States and the Jewish state. He choose settlements as a wedge issue designed to split Netanyahu from the Israeli public and topple the government, in the process changing the widely understood interpretation of “settlement freeze” from “no expansion outside existing blocs” to “no Jewish construction over the Green Line even in Jerusalem.” Either Netanyahu would halt all construction and lose the Israeli right, the thinking went, or he would put himself on the wrong side of the United States president and lose the Israeli center. Satisfyingly clever.

Of course the administration’s reading of Israeli polling data was flat wrong, and even Israeli opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni insisted that Jerusalem was a consensus issue. The Israeli public rallied behind Netanyahu, while distrust in Obama and his reliability as an ally — a precondition to Israel taking risks for peace — skyrocketed. But having categorically stated that it was simply impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate while Jews built schools and supermarkets in East Jerusalem, the White House couldn’t then admit that a “full freeze” was just a gambit meant to weaken Netanyahu. So that continued to be the official U.S. position through the end of 2010, until the White House had to nuance the counterproductive request. Of course by that time Palestinian negotiators, unable to be less anti-Israel than the U.S. president, had incorporated it as a precondition for talks. They didn’t have the option of abandoning it when the White House did, and the peace process remained moribund.

Again, this is all more or less conventional wisdom. Still, it’s nice to have confirmation:

[Abbas] told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

The question, as always, isn’t just about the decision but about the decision-making process. Which obviously clumsy advisers convinced the president that the strategy was sound, and are they still prognosticating on Israeli calculations and Palestinian intentions? What obviously inaccurate assumptions were they using, and are those beliefs still guiding our Middle East policymaking? Because generally when someone charts a course that’s flawed in precisely predictable ways, when they dismiss those precise objections with specific justifications, and when they turn out to be precisely wrong — they generally get replaced. But there’s not much evidence that ever happened.

Of course it’s difficult to know from the outside where exactly things went awry, and who was making up which anti-Israel pretexts. The administration’s foreign policy is a hodgepodge of institutionalized ideology and wishful thinking, with various factions all vying for the president’s ear and trying to be unwittingly wrong in their own special way.

There are old peace-process hands who interpret obsolete data through outmoded preconceptions, and who suggest tactics that are too clever by half and misguided in full. There are anti-Israel Jewish activists who whine about exclusion while insisting that they represent American Jewry, and who leverage their access to the president to peddle fantasies about American Jewish sentiments. There are multilateralists who resent having to defend our only stable Middle Eastern ally from global hostility, and gesture vaguely at ad-hoc international solutions and national credibility. There are diplomats and scholars whose institutional importance rises and falls as a function of the centrality of the Arab world, and who overstate the moderation of Arab governments while understating the pathology of the Arab Street.

And that’s before we get to the quotidian antipathy that many in the administration harbor toward the Israelis, an antipathy that apparently makes any anti-Israel reasoning — no matter how thin — seem like the height of sophistication.