Mideast Peace Talks: Getting Past the Settlements Issue

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, shake hands before their meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday inadvertently revealed just why the Palestinians and most of their Arab neighbors are so gloomy about her Administration's Middle East peace efforts. Speaking in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh after the latest round of direct talks between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — which U.S. officials characterized as positive — Clinton recalled that she had been "summarily criticized, roundly and consistently by everyone in the region" late last year when she described as "unprecedented" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration of a partial moratorium on settlement construction on occupied land. That moratorium is set to expire on September 26, and Netanyahu says he doesn't plan to extend it. That has Abbas threatening to walk away from the table. But Clinton said the Palestinians are setting too much store by the moratorium, somewhat disingenuously suggesting that if it had been so derided previously, it can't be that important.

Clinton's purpose, of course, was to warn the Palestinians against a walkout. "For me," the Secretary of State said Monday, "this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state." She may have said "for me," but she meant "for the Palestinians." After all, the Israelis already have a state, and Abbas is doing nothing to threaten their security. But Clinton ought not to be surprised by the fuss Abbas is making over the moratorium issue: She herself had insisted just last spring that Israel freeze all construction on occupied land: "Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."

Yet, the arrangement she hailed as "unprecedented" six months later included plenty of exceptions, such as ongoing Israeli construction in occupied East Jerusalem and of public buildings in West Bank settlements. Netanyahu had defied Washington and prevailed; Abbas was left isolated, holding out for the Obama Administration's original demand as a precondition for talks. Eventually, financial pressure on his aid-dependent administration from the U.S. and its allies forced the Palestinian leader into a humiliating retreat — he's at the talks because he has been left no option, not because he believes Netanyahu intends to offer terms acceptable to any Palestinian leader. So, the expiration of Netanyahu's limited moratorium was viewed by Abbas and his entourage as an opportunity to press for more concessions, but Clinton was clearly warning him that the only game in town is a peace process on terms comfortable for Netanyahu. And the Israeli leader is warning that his coalition with parties of the far right will not survive a continuation of the moratorium. (There are more than enough alternative coalition partners in the center of the spectrum to create a viable government, of course, but the Obama Administration is not in the game of pressing for regime-change in Israel.)

So, the U.S. is reportedly trying to press the Palestinian leader into what the New York Times called a "creative solution... that would allow the Palestinians to accept less than a full extension of the moratorium or that would enable Mr. Netanyahu to sell an extension to his domestic audience." For Abbas, of course, that sounds a lot like negotiating a new compromise on the old compromise he had rejected in the first place. And to make matters worse, the Israeli municipal authority in Jerusalem will in October begin debating plans for more than 1,300 new housing units in the occupied part of the city.

For Clinton, however, Abbas' obsession with the settlement-freeze issue is a distraction from the main event of a peace agreement to deliver a Palestinian state. But for the Palestinian leader, it's a reminder of the imbalance in leverage between the two sides, and of the fact that the U.S. is not about to use its own weight to balance the scales. After all, the Palestinians argue, the settlement freeze is not a concession any more than the PA Security Forces arresting the suspected gunmen in the attack on settlers two weeks ago is a concession; both are longstanding obligations under the Bush Administration's 2002 Roadmap. Seeing Netanyahu scale back the settlement moratorium another few notches is simply another indication, for Abbas, that he has no leverage and that he's locked into a process on Netanyahu's terms, which Washington says is the only route to Palestinian statehood. Abbas deeply doubts that he'll get what he needs out of the process, but he'll stay at the table because he has nowhere else to go.