President Obama visited Ramallah today and held a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during which he reiterated the U.S. stand in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But just before that confab he received a greeting from the real Palestinian state in all but name, already in existence on Israel’s opposite border. Rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel with reports saying that two landed in Sderot and that others may have been fired elsewhere.
While none of the terror groups, including the Hamas rulers of Gaza, took responsibility for the attacks, the message was clear. While the president was engaging in an awkward dance with Abbas about the peace process, the result of the last major Israeli attempt to trade land for peace was illustrating not only that the PA didn’t control much of what would constitute that independent state but that those who did had no interest in a two-state solution.
The Obama-Abbas press conference struck a very different note from the friendly exchanges that marked the president’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president was again stating his support for the idea of a Palestinian state and doing so in terms that ought to concern friends of Israel, he also pushed back a little bit on Abbas’s charade that Israeli settlements were preventing the outbreak of peace.
Obama said he wanted an “independent, viable and contiguous” Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, though he did not explain how that could be accomplished given the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are separated and cannot be connected except by rendering the Jewish state non-contiguous. He also returned to a theme familiar from his first term when he said Israeli settlements were “not constructive and appropriate.” He even said that building in the E-1 area in between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim cold not be squared with the creation of a Palestinian state, even though doing so would not prevent it from being viable or contiguous.
But Obama also said that settlements were not the core issue at the heart of the conflict and that if all the other factors dividing the two sides were resolved settlements would not prevent peace. Even more importantly, he emphasized that there ought to be no preconditions placed by either side before peace negotiations could be resumed. That’s a direct shot at Abbas who has refused to talk to the Israelis since 2008 and consistently set conditions for doing so that were merely a thinly veiled excuse for staying away from the table.
While signs of Obama’s own unhealthy obsessions with settlements were still apparent, this shows the president has learned a thing or two since he began his administration with a drive to force Israel to freeze building in the mistaken idea that this would make peace possible. Years of trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of Abbas have shown him that the Palestinian leader’s main priority has always been to find excuses not to negotiate, because doing so might place him in the position of having to actually sign an agreement. Though the president restated his positions on settlements and peace, he seemed to put the ball squarely in Abbas’s court when it came to negotiations. Though many observers thought the president would use his second term to resume a campaign of pressure on Israel to make concessions, even the Palestinian leg of his trip to the country shows that he may no longer be interested in investing scarce political capital in a fight with the Israelis when there is little chance the intended beneficiaries of his policy wish to take advantage of it.
Just as important, the rocket fire from Gaza was a reminder that Abbas, who recently began the ninth year of the four-year-term in office to which he was elected in 2005, is merely the sham leader of his people. Gaza, from which Israel withdrew every soldier and settler that same year, is, for all intents and purposes, the independent Palestinian state that Obama has been talking about. Rather than living in peace with Israel, it is nothing but a terrorist staging ground from which rockets continue to fly as testimony to the unshaken faith of its leaders in the unending war against the Zionism that Obama specifically endorsed yesterday upon his arrival in Israel.
It may well be that the president is hoping to persuade Israelis to trust him on both the peace process and the threat from Iran. That may be a prelude to future conflicts with Netanyahu. But his message to Palestinians seems to be more one of “get your act together” than one that offers them hope they can count on the president to hammer the Israelis on their behalf. While some supporters of Israel will grouse about what the president said today about settlements, what the Palestinians heard actually offered them very little comfort. The lack of a direct demand from Obama for a settlement freeze and the seeming endorsement of Israel’s call for resumption of negotiations without preconditions means the Palestinians have been put on notice that the president’s second term may not be squandered on further attempts to help a divided people that won’t help themselves.