Was it only two months ago that President Obama launched Middle East peace
talks to create a Palestinian state, at a White House ceremony in the presence
of the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan?
I was prepared to give the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president the benefit of the doubt, given the official fanfare around the resumption of direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians for the first time in nearly two years. The fact that the wily Sen. George Mitchell, with his previous experience in the Middle East as well as leading the Northern Ireland talks, was shepherding the process gave more grounds for comfort.
However, I also warned that it would have been irresponsible to raise expectations of a peace deal in a year had Obama not obtained an understanding from Netanyahu on a continued settlement freeze. Sadly, this not only turns out to be the case, but we have witnessed weeks of protracted negotiations and inducements to Bibi on this very issue, and the Americans have now concluded that reaching an agreement on a moratorium as a condition for the talks to continue is not the best way to proceed.
So the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, says that now the U.S. would focus “on the substance of the core issues, less on the process.” But wait a minute — that’s what the U.S. said in September — and we subsequently learned from President Mahmoud Abbas himself that Mitchell had been misleading in his upbeat assessments of the first rounds of talks.
Abbas told diplomats in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that the “core issues” — the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinians and Israeli security — had been skirted in the negotiations. He was quoted as saying that Netanyahu had said “nothing but niceties” and had refused to talk about anything other than Israeli security.
This is a pattern that reminds me of the negotiations over the implementation of the Quartet’s roadmap for Middle East peace, where the Israelis refused to budge on their commitments until the Palestinians had completed theirs.
So what happens now? Having raised expectations, Obama should stop digging himself into this bottomless hole called the Middle East peace process. It’s starting to look like the sudden convening of the White House moment might have been connected to the midterm elections after all. And look what good that did him.