Noah, you note that Obama “is pushing forward with his failed strategy of a year ago, only this time with a bigger hammer.” It is worth reviewing specifically why that strategy failed a year ago — because the lesson is much different from Obama’s facile explanation (“This is just really hard … we [didn’t anticipate] some of these political problems on both sides.”)
Netanyahu met with Obama six weeks after taking office, bringing with him a straightforward proposal: commence immediate negotiations with the Palestinians with no preconditions. It was an extraordinary position: Israel had just completed a year of final-status negotiations with the Palestinians, offering them a state on all of Gaza and the West Bank (after land swaps), with an international solution for the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem. The Palestinians had rejected the proposal out of hand, just as they had rejected Ehud Barak’s offer in July 2000 at Camp David and the Clinton Parameters in January 2001.
Netanyahu could have — and probably should have — taken the position that it was pointless to resume final-status negotiations while the Palestinians had a terrorist regime in Gaza and a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank unprepared to agree to a demilitarized state or to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Under those circumstances, a new “peace process” would simply create on Israel’s eastern side what 100 percent withdrawals had brought it in the north and south. There is no rule of international law that says the Palestinians, having rejected three offers of a state, were entitled to a fourth.
Instead of endorsing Netanyahu’s offer of negotiations without preconditions, Obama established a precondition that violated a longstanding oral understanding and the written assurances of the 2004 Bush letter. He demanded that Israel cease all settlement activity, even in settlements the U.S. had already conceded in that letter would be part of Israel in any final-status agreement — and that were necessary for the “defensible borders” promised both in that letter and one the Clinton administration had provided Israel. Moreover, the Bush letter was not simply the policy or promise of prior administrations: it reflected a deal. Obama was reneging on formal U.S. reassurances that if Israel took the “risk for peace” of withdrawing every soldier and settler from Gaza, the U.S. would not require a West Bank withdrawal to indefensible borders.
Things were not “really hard” — Netanyahu had made them relatively easy with his proposal for immediate negotiations. Nor were there political problems “on both sides” — Netanyahu had overcome the ones on his side and put forward a constructive way to proceed. But Arab expectations soared as they watched Obama renege on prior U.S. commitments, demand new concessions from Israel before negotiations could start, and obviate the need for the Palestinians to negotiate themselves.
A year later, Obama has made the same mistake again, choosing to escalate a low-level administrative approval of housing in a longstanding Jewish part of Jerusalem into a crisis with Israel. It is another display of Chicago-style diplomacy designed to demand concessions he knows Netanyahu cannot make, and that were not a condition of the prior negotiations that produced three Israeli offers of a state. Once again, Obama will send Arab expectations even higher, send Israeli trust in him even lower, and reduce the chances of success for any “proximity talks” from slim to none. Another triumph of smart diplomacy — complete with, as Noah notes, a denigration of the intelligence of Israel’s leader.