Last month, Jeffrey Goldberg published an interview with President Barack Obama, ahead of Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States to attend the AIPAC conference. The President wasn’t at all friendly in the interview, warning (in Goldberg’s words) that “time is running out.” Roughly four weeks later, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority refused to continue negotiations with Israel. Is there a connection between the two?

Put a different way, in the words of Neo-Neocon Did Obama Sabotage Kerry on Peace Talks?

The answer is “yes,” and here’s how.

There are two points that Obama made in his interview worth recalling. Answering a question from Goldberg about Abbas, President Obama said:

We don’t know exactly what would happen. What we know is that it gets harder by the day. What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally. We had to stand up in the Security Council in ways that 20 years ago would have involved far more European support, far more support from other parts of the world when it comes to Israel’s position. And that’s a reflection of a genuine sense on the part of a lot of countries out there that this issue continues to fester, is not getting resolved, and that nobody is willing to take the leap to bring it to closure.

In that kind of environment, where you’ve got a partner on the other side who is prepared to negotiate seriously, who does not engage in some of the wild rhetoric that so often you see in the Arab world when it comes to Israel, who has shown himself committed to maintaining order within the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority and to cooperate with Israelis around their security concerns — for us to not seize this moment I think would be a great mistake. I’ve said directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu he has an opportunity to solidify, to lock in, a democratic, Jewish state of Israel that is at peace with its neighbors and —

The two points that stick out in these paragraphs are:

  1. Obama implies that if Israel doesn’t make peace he may no longer be willing to defend it in international fora.
  2. Israel has a unique opportunity to make a deal with Abbas, something it may not have again.

(There are number of problems with these assertions. If Obama says that it’s harder to defense Israel now than it was 20 years ago, he’s going back to the beginning of the Oslo Accords. He’s saying that after twenty years of negotiating with the Palestinians; giving them land and money; and being repaid with violence and betrayal Israel is more vilified than it was before. By Obama’s telling Israel has been weakened by the peace process. Would it not make sense then for Israel to withdraw from the peace process? If Obama believes that Abbas is unique not only among Arabs but among Palestinians, what sort of risk would further withdrawals entail for Israel? We’ve already seen the costs that withdrawing from Gaza and southern Lebanon engendered. If there’s no one among the Palestinians committed to keeping the terms of any agreement reached by Abbas wouldn’t the risks to Israel’s security be even greater as the bulge of Samaria shrinks Israel’s “waistline” to roughly 8 miles?)

In these two paragraphs Obama telegraphed two messages. The first is that the United States sees making peace as more important (if not essential) for Israel than for the Palestinians.  The second message is that he sees Abbas as being indispensable to peace.

Knowing that the cost to defying the United States is non-existent and that he has the full support of the President, Abbas had no incentive to negotiate. So when the prisoner releases were at the end he decided to up the ante and, when he didn’t get that, walked away.

Why isn’t the idea of running his own state incentive enough to negotiate?

Because Abbas thinks he get his state on the cheap. He (and Arafat before him) did nothing to build political support for peace. When Arafat didn’t get what he want he turned to violence. When Abbas hasn’t gotten what he wanted he’s sought to circumvent negotiations. Jackson Diehl wrote about this strategy early in Obama’s presidency:

Yet on Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared for the White House meeting in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Abbas insisted that his only role was to wait. He will wait for Hamas to capitulate to his demand that any Palestinian unity government recognize Israel and swear off violence. And he will wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction and publicly accept the two-state formula. …

Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud. “The Americans are the leaders of the world,” Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’ “

(Emphasis mine.)

When Obama was elected, Abbas saw a possibility that he could America to do his dirty work. That hasn’t worked so far. (Well it’s worked enough to damage Israel’s reputation in some circles, but it hasn’t gotten Abbas what he wanted.)

So now Abbas is going back to what Jonathan Schanzer identified as the Palestine 194 strategy.

Abbas, who has led the Palestinian Authority well past his legal mandate (his term ended in 2009), is almost certainly set to renew the international campaign for recognition of Palestinian statehood. It’s a campaign known in Ramallah as the “Palestine 194” campaign.

This initiative had been in the works, with fits and starts, since 2005. That year, Abbas reportedly traveled to Brazil for a summit of South American and Arab states, and met privately with Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There, da Silva supposedly told Abbas that when he neared the end of his second term (which expired on January 1, 2011), he would help build a Latin American consensus for a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the UN.

Between 2009 and 2011, Abbas and Lula made good on their plan, recruiting scores of Latin American [5] and other non-aligned states to recognize the State of Palestine. The campaign also included European states such as France, Spain, Portugal and Norway. In 2010, at an Arab League meeting in Sirte, Abbas made one of his first references to the “Palestine 194 [6]” campaign. The name said it all: there are currently 193 member-states in the United Nations, and the Palestinians were unambiguous about their desire to become the 194th.

President Obama with his “time is running on Israel” belief (backed by Kerry’s “worried about Israel’s future” ruminations) has signaled to Abbas that he has nothing to fear. He could ditch the talks with no consequence because American pressure would be on Israel. Abbas, quite rationally, obliged.

Am I exaggerating President Obama’s role in feeding Abbas’s intransigence and scuttling the peace talks?

Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for the left wing Israeli paper Ha’aretz and no friend of the current Israeli government claimed something similar.

In December 2012, a month after Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential elections, columnist Peter Beinart published an article on the news and opinion website The Daily Beast entitled “Why Barack Obama will ignore Israel.” Beinart wrote at the time that during Obama’s second term, he did not intend to clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue, but would stand aside and allow the rest of the world, especially the European Union, to ratchet up the pressure on the Israeli PM.

Beinart quoted senior White House officials, who called Obama’s policy toward the peace process “benign neglect.” Those same senior officials said at the time that Netanyahu wanted only to present a pseudo-peace process so as to deflect international pressure; therefore, renewing talks would only help him do so. They explained that only when Netanyahu feels the pressure of isolation very directly will there be any chance that he will change direction and agree to make the tough decisions needed.

Ravid seems to be endorsing Beinart’s and Obama’s view that “benign neglect” is the best thing for Israel, because only when Israel is confronted with international opprobrium will it make the necessary “hard choices.” Furthermore, Obama, according to this sympathetic account, believes that negotiations are a favor to Israel. Both men, each for his own reason, want to see an internationalization of the conflict.

In the Bloomberg interview, Obama made his position clear and planted the seeds of failure for the peace process.

[Photo: Pete Souza / WikiCommons ]


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