The announcement that the so-called “proximity” talks started up today is, as Noah wrote earlier today, a “victory” of some sort for President Obama because the existence of such talks allows the president to pretend that he is advancing the cause of peace.
However, American friends of Israel might well note the difference between the current negotiations and the last round of (unsuccessful) talks held between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in 2008. Like the current talks, those negotiations were also strongly backed by the United States, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to sincerely believe that the process started in Annapolis in the fall of 2007 had a reasonable chance of success. The Palestinians proved her wrong. At that time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the PA a state in Gaza, the West Bank, and part of Jerusalem and even agreed, to the dismay of most Israelis, to take back some Palestinian refugees into Israel as well as to share sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. But the answer from the moderate Mahmoud Abbas and his likeable Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was no different from that given to Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton by Yasser Arafat when they offered a similar package in 2000 and 2001: no!
But then, at least, the parties were speaking directly to each other. Not passing messages to each other via intermediaries as bored middle-school students do. And as much as the United States made it very clear to the Israelis that America wanted them to make even more concessions to the Arabs than ever before (a wish that was readily granted by Olmert), the United States did not offer the Palestinians a veto over the existence of the talks. Neither did it take a stand on a critical final-status issue that prejudiced Israel’s negotiating position in such a way as to render any discussions on the matter largely moot.
But that’s exactly what the United States has done by allowing the Palestinians to avoid talks until a building freeze was put into place on Jewish housing in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. By treating these neighborhoods, most of which are nearly 40 years old, as indistinguishable from “settlements” in outlying areas of the West Bank, the Obama administration has signaled that it views the more than 200,000 Jews who live in those neighborhoods with the same contempt as it views the settlers in the West Bank. By making an issue out of building in these areas, Obama has made it impossible for the Palestinians to concede them to Israel even in a theoretical final-status agreement. Thus any house, even privately built in one of those neighborhoods, now becomes a U.S.-endorsed rationale for the Palestinians to pull out of talks that they had no interest in to begin with.
The ultimate fate of these negotiations is no mystery. Just as was the case in 2008, even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded everything that his American and domestic critics demand, there is virtually no chance that Abbas will sign any paper that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state. In that sense, the 2010 talks are no different from the 2008 version. But the administration’s undermining of Israel’s position will make it easier for the Palestinians to blame their refusal to make peace on the Israelis. And for that, they have Barack Obama to thank.