When speaking at a press conference in South Korea today about the collapse of the Middle East peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry, President Obama adopted a tone of sorrowful resignation about the intransigence of both sides:
“As far as the Middle East is concerned, this is a problem that’s been going on for 60, 70, 80 years. We didn’t anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six or nine-month negotiation. … What we haven’t seen is, frankly, the kind of political will to actually make tough decisions. And that’s been true on both sides. And the fact that most recently President Abbas took the unhelpful step of rejoining talks with Hamas is just one of a series of choices that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have made that are not conducive to trying to resolve this crisis. … Folks can posture; folks can cling to maximalist positions; but realistically, there’s one door, and that is the two parties getting together and making some very difficult political compromises in order to secure the future of both Israelis and Palestinians for future generations.”
In doing so, the president not only deflected blame from Kerry and the administration but also refused to frankly acknowledge that it has been the Palestinian Authority who torpedoed the talks both by violating their agreements and going to the United Nations for recognition but also by concluding an alliance with the Hamas terrorists which the U.S. has always acknowledged to be incompatible with the peace process.
But the blame doesn’t only belong to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Were he truly being honest about the events of the past several months, the president would have to acknowledge that the series of events that led up the current debacle has been set in motion in no small measure by himself. When the history of the fool’s errand that Kerry has wasted so much of the last year on is written, Obama must bear much of the responsibility for the mixed signals sent to the region that encouraged Abbas to think he would be let off the hook for delivering what amounts to a fourth Palestinian “no” to Israeli offers of statehood and peace.
Throughout the period of negotiations Obama has concentrated all of his criticisms and all public criticism on Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu. In interviews and public statements, he has continually warned Israel that it must make concessions and take risks for peace. He bolstered the conventional wisdom accepted by most of the international media and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that Israel had not done the necessary soul searching or come to the conclusion that it must embrace peace rather than maximal territorial demands. In doing so, he acted as if the history of the last 20 years, during which Israel has made far-reaching territorial concessions, empowered the Palestinian Authority, and withdrawn completely from Gaza, never happened. American promises given to past Israeli prime ministers about support for Israel’s claims to settlement blocs and Jerusalem were treated as irrelevant. The three Palestinian refusals of Israeli peace offers in 2000, 2001, and 2008, including an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem, were thrown down the memory hole. Despite his embrace of a two-state solution and another offer of statehood made during the recent talks, Netanyahu was depicted as intransigent.
At the same time, Obama spoke of Abbas as a strong champion of peace even when the PA leader was embracing the released terrorist murderers that the U.S. had pressured Israel into releasing as a bribe for the Palestinians to return to the talks. The Palestinians never budged during the talks. Nor were they willing, even in principle, to drop their demands for a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Yet, even as he was continually bashing Netanyahu, Abbas got off scot-free. And when Abbas fled the negotiations that he had never wanted to be part of by going to the U.N., Kerry inexplicably blamed it all on an Israeli building project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that no one—not even the Palestinians—expects Israel to give up even in the event of peace.
Tilting the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction may have been intended to weaken Netanyahu and empower Abbas to make peace. But it had the opposite effect. Perhaps Obama and Kerry thought Abbas—now serving in the 10th year of a five-year presidential term and under pressure from Hamas—was too fragile to withstand pressure to make peace. But by giving him a pass, they sent a clear signal that not even a unity deal with Hamas would result in severe consequences for the PA.
It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that not even tough pressure on Abbas to do what had to be done to make peace would have worked. Palestinian political culture is still predicated on a vision of national identity that is inextricably linked to the cause of Israel’s elimination. But the U.S. didn’t even try to push Abbas while hammering Netanyahu. When given the chance to make it clear to Abbas that his choice was between peace and complete isolation, the president punted. The result is—assuming the unity pact doesn’t collapse—a new PA that is bound to Hamas’s rejectionism that will also strengthen the most radical elements in Fatah. Rather than taking bows for a gallant effort, the administration ought to be admitting that it has taken a bad situation and made it worse.
It is no surprise that the peace process failed since the conditions that would have made it possible were not present. But any slim hopes for a deal were destroyed by Obama’s obsession with battering Israel and his delusions about the Palestinians.