Noah, as you note, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s statement that the administration is “dismayed” at the construction of more housing in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem — because “neither party should unilaterally preempt negotiations” – is a non-sequitur. Last May, Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House for his first meeting as prime minister with President Obama and announced he wanted to commence negotiations “immediately,” without preconditions, which has been his position ever since.
What unilaterally preempted negotiations was the Obama/Abbas precondition of a settlement “freeze” that (1) was not previously demanded in any prior negotiations, (2) contradicted a six-year understanding about the meaning of a “freeze” (no new settlements, no expansion of existing settlement borders, and no financial incentives for new settlers), (3) could not be defined in practical terms even by George Mitchell, and (4) was not a condition that any Israeli government, Left or Right, could accept.
There was a little comedy silver at the State Department press conference yesterday, as spokesman Ian Kelly repeated the notion that the expansion of housing in Gilo was “dismaying” because it could “unilaterally” preempt negotiations. One of the reporters asked Kelly if he could “give us just a brief synopsis of the progress that Senator Mitchell has made in his months on the job” — to which Kelly responded that the administration had gotten both sides to agree on a goal:
QUESTION: But previous Israeli administration — previous Israeli governments had agreed to that already.
MR. KELLY: Okay, all right.
QUESTION: So in other words, the bottom line is that, in the list of accomplishments that Mitchell has come up with or established since he started, is zero.
MR. KELLY: I wouldn’t say zero.
QUESTION: Well, then what would you say it is?
MR. KELLY: Well, I would say that we’ve gotten both sides to commit to this goal. They have — we have — we’ve had a [sic] intensive round or rounds of negotiations, the President brought the two leaders together in New York. Look —
QUESTION: But wait, hold on. You haven’t had any intense —
MR. KELLY: Obviously —
QUESTION: There haven’t been any negotiations.
MR. KELLY: Obviously, we’re not even in the red zone yet, okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. KELLY: I mean, we’re not — but it’s — we are less than a year into this Administration, and I think we’ve accomplished more over the last year than the previous administration did in eight years.
QUESTION: Well, I — really, because the previous administration actually had them sitting down talking to each other. You guys can’t even get that far.
MR. KELLY: All right.
In the last year of the Bush administration, the U.S. convened an international conference at Annapolis to launch final-status negotiations, devoted its secretary of state to trip after trip to the Middle East to push the negotiations, produced a new Israeli offer of a Palestinian state on effectively all the West Bank (after land swaps) with a shared Jerusalem, and watched the Palestinians take the opportunity to miss another of their famous opportunities.
In the first year of the Obama administration, the U.S. has not been able to start negotiations, even after the president made it his first foreign-policy priority, and even after Israel announced it wanted to start them immediately without preconditions.
The proper response to this extraordinary display of diplomatic incompetence should not be dismay at Israel — and certainly not the inaccurate claim of accomplishing eight years’ worth of peace-processing in one year — but rather serious self-reflection. As Jonathan properly notes, the treatment of Gilo by the Obama administration as if it were a “settlement” is a serious change in the tone and substance of the U.S. position (contradicting, among other things, the 2004 Bush Letter given in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and encouraging further Palestinian intransigence), one that puts peace even further away.