There have been a lot of arguments and counterarguments regarding President Obama’s statement that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should proceed using Israel’s 1949 armistice lines as a starting point. Some claim that the position reflects decades of U.S. policy. Others claim that it’s a break from past administrations but is consistent with this one’s peacemaking. Yet others claim that it goes beyond all previous American stances, and that it represents a “borders first” approach that hasn’t been seen in the Oslo era. For each of these claims there are also arguments on both sides—given that the Obama speech stipulated this and not that—predicting what effect will be had on the peace process.
If only there was an objective way to evaluate how Obama’s demands on Israel are playing out in the context of Middle East diplomacy. Some way to check—again, objectively—whether as this morning there are more barriers or less barriers to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Quantitatively, as it were.
Conveniently, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has now released a statement, transforming Obama’s border guidelines into preconditions for renewed talks. Until recently the Palestinians had no problem negotiating without those preconditions. It was widely recognized that the Palestinians were trying to get to Obama’s position—a final status agreement structured around the 1949 lines plus land swaps—but that they would have to negotiate to it and make concessions along the way. Now Erekat is insisting that “there is no point talking about a peace process” unless Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts the final Palestinian position as everyone’s starting position. Since that’s not going to happen under any circumstances—nor should it—we are again in a situation where President Obama’s de-facto advocacy for the Palestinian cause has made peace more difficult to achieve.
All of this nonsense was easy to explicitly predict. This film has played before. In 2009 the White House decided that construction in Israeli settlement blocs so eroded Palestinian trust that the poor dears were unable to negotiate. The Palestinians, who had for years been quite able to negotiate while that construction continued, were forced to follow President Obama’s lead and insist upon a settlement freeze as a new precondition. They couldn’t let the U.S. president out-Palestine the Palestinian president. Abbas would later complain that Obama’s settlement stance came from the White House and pushed the Palestinians out on a limb—before leaving them there. Three times.
At this point, I’m genuinely unsure whether the Palestinians are pleased with how Obama is tilting negotiations in their direction, or just kind of confused about what it is that he thinks he’s doing.