Behind the Crisis in Obama's Mideast Peace Process

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Ron Sachs / Pool / Getty Image

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Sept. 1, 2010

U.S. diplomats scurried around Middle Eastern capitals over the weekend as President Barack Obama's efforts to broker a Middle East peace agreement risked collapse in the face of yet another breakdown over Israeli settlement construction. This episode has made clear a fundamental problem challenging the new peace effort: the face-to-face talks Obama has orchestrated between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have thus far been meaningful only in a symbolic sense — Israel's substantial negotiations are conducted not with the Palestinians, but with the U.S. The same is true for the Palestinians, who believe Netanyahu has no intention of making concessions except to the extent that he's pressured to do so by Washington.

Netanyahu's partial moratorium on building in settlements, ordered last year to enable negotiations, expired a week ago and he refuses to extend it despite Abbas having pulled out of talks until the freeze is restored. U.S. diplomats are trying to broker a compromise ahead of an Arab League Foreign Ministers summit to be held later this week at which Abbas has threatened to make a "historic" announcement that his aides hint won't sit well with the Israelis. (The fact that the summit has been now postponed from Wednesday to Friday is a sign that intense horse-trading may be under way.) But the negotiations that will determine the outcome of the latest minicrisis will be those that both parties conduct with the U.S.

The Obama Administration appears to have assumed that having the two sides at the table in direct talks would somehow create self-sustaining momentum toward a peace agreement. The President has reportedly offered Netanyahu a raft of unprecedented measures of U.S. political backing for Israel's negotiating positions and direct military support, in exchange for simply continuing the settlement moratorium for another 60 days (with the promise that Obama will request no further extensions). The underlying assumption of that offer appears to be that the two sides will agree within two months on where to draw the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state, which would allow Israel to continue building in those settlements it would keep and permanently freeze construction in those on the wrong side of that future border. That's a wildly optimistic assumption, according to many veteran observers of the Middle East peace process.

Despite the upbeat talk of U.S. envoy and ex-Senator George Mitchell about the progress of the negotiations, the Israeli media reports that Palestinian leaders have privately accused Netanyahu of stonewalling. Abbas has reportedly told European diplomats that the only issue on which the Israeli side has been willing to engage meaningfully, thus far, has been Israeli security. They also reported that Abbas was "alarmed" to hear that Netanyahu envisaged any "framework agreement" reached in the current process as being implemented over a 20-year period.

A key element of the offer Obama reportedly made to Netanyahu in order to coax just 60 more days of moratorium out of him was U.S. support for Israel's long-standing demand to keep its own troops in control of the border of a future Palestinian state for a long-term "transitional period." The fact that Netanyahu has inclined to turn it (and the host of additional security guarantees and new weapons sales) down suggests that the Israeli leader believes he is in a strong position vis-á-vis his American negotiating partner. To be sure, Obama will be aware that a difficult midterm election is not an auspicious moment to be tussling with the Israelis.

The Palestinian camp rejects the principle of Israeli troops remaining in a future state, although they're open to the presence of a third-party security force. Still, it's unlikely that any U.S. offer to Netanyahu on that issue was cleared with the Palestinians, who bring no leverage to the table except their ability to walk away and shatter the illusion of progress in a peace process that Obama has defined as a U.S. national security priority. Abbas was urged to do just that on Saturday when he consulted with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on whose behalf he negotiates with Israel — although he hadn't gotten their go-ahead to participate in the talks in the first place. But Abbas will, no doubt, be dangling that threat in the hope of extracting new concessions of his own from the Americans. He may even use the prospect of progress in his government's long-stalled reconciliation process with Hamas to raise pressure.

The Administration appears to have overestimated what can be achieved by having the two sides in the same room, given the obvious gulf between their expectations and bottom lines. The Palestinians had to be strong-armed into showing up at all, believing that Netanyahu's refusal to implement the complete settlement freeze demanded last year by the Obama Administration simply confirmed their suspicion that he has no intention of concluding a credible peace deal. Netanyahu is happy to talk, but on his own terms, and is under no domestic political pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians. Rather than generating momentum toward a self-sustaining process, the current talks appear to see both sides going through the motions in order to strengthen their case in their own negotiations with Washington. And over the past decade, that's a negotiation in which the Israelis have fared far better than the Palestinians. Rather than working together to keep a peace process going, each side seems more inclined to use the specter of its collapse to leverage more support from Washington for its own position.

U.S. officials love to repeat the mantra that Washington can't allow itself to be found in a position of "wanting peace more than the parties themselves do," but in the case of this particular peace process, that may be exactly where they're headed.