When I first read Jonathan’s post yesterday, I thought he was blaming President Barack Obama unfairly: The Palestinians don’t need Obama to produce excuses for shunning negotiations; they’ve produced plenty all by themselves (about which more in a separate post). But when I read the New York Times article he referenced, I was shocked – not by the Palestinians’ position, but by reporter Ethan Bronner’s. For when a Palestinian official asserted that Israel’s demand to retain the major settlement blocs “abandons … the framework we have been focused on for the past 20 years,” Bronner, who as a veteran Israeli correspondent should surely have known better, parroted this without a word of demurral – thereby erasing 20 years of history in which every single proposal ever discussed had Israel keeping the settlement blocs.
President Bill Clinton’s parameters of 2000, long considered the blueprint for any final-status agreement, assigned the settlement blocs to Israel. President George W. Bush asserted in a 2004 letter that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer of 2008 – which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after rejecting at the time, suddenly embraced last year, once Olmert was gone and it was off the table – also had Israel retaining the settlement blocs.
In short, Israeli retention of the settlement blocs is precisely “the framework we have been focused on for the past 20 years.”
But along came Obama, with his assertion last May that the starting point for talks should be the 1967 lines rather than two decades of previous negotiations, and suddenly, 20 years of history have been erased: The Palestinians can unblushingly assert that Israel’s demand to retain the settlement blocs is a new demand, and a veteran New York Times reporter can unblushingly parrot that assertion. In effect, the starting point for talks has just been moved.
This would indeed be a serious obstacle to negotiations if they ever resumed, because in 20 years of conceding one “red line” after another, one of the few things successive Israeli governments have never wavered on is their insistence on retaining the settlement blocs. Yet the Palestinians can’t be more Catholic than the Pope: If the U.S. president deems the settlement blocs illegitimate, Palestinians can hardly do otherwise. That’s precisely why previous U.S. presidents were always careful to provide cover for Palestinian negotiators by making it clear that in their view, the settlement blocs should remain Israeli.
But Obama has practically single-handedly created a new narrative, in which Israeli retention of the settlement blocs is not a given, and his allies in the media are eagerly disseminating it. And that mistake, as Jonathan aptly said, will haunt Israeli-Palestinian talks for a long time to come.