In his first speech since leaving his post as President Obama’s senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross earned a headline in The Post this week for saying that Obama was committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and believed there was still “time and space” for a nonmilitary solution.
I was more intrigued, though, by Ross’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which remains gridlocked more than a year after Obama hoped to seal a final peace accord. Ross confirmed what anyone watching the continuing but desultory diplomacy can see: “The prospect of achieving peace soon” is not “a very high prospect.”
Then he offered an analysis of the obstacles that struck me as both on-target and out of keeping with what we’ve heard from Obama and other senior administration officials. The president appears to blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the failure to begin negotiations, describing him — especially in private meetings — as intransigent.
But Ross had this to say about Netanyahu’s counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen:
“Abu Mazen is convinced that, with this Israeli government, he can’t reach agreement. And so, because he’s convinced that there’s no agreement with this Israeli government, he imposes conditions on negotiations, since he’s convinced negotiations will only produce failure.”
Of Netanyahu, Ross said: “He sees in Abu Mazen someone who looks like he runs away from negotiations, imposes conditions for negotiations that he didn’t impose on Bibi’s predecessors, and he puts Israel in the corner.” Which, by Ross’s own account, is not an inaccurate perception.
This is a point that I, among other observers, have been trying to make since 2009: Abbas is simply unwilling to deal with Netanyahu, and his demands for Israeli concessions prior to talks — such as a settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem — are pretexts that have nothing to do with his real motives, or the real obstacles to peace. It follows that, almost regardless of concessions Netanyahu might make — such as his settlement-construction moratorium last year — Abbas will refuse to talk.
So why do Obama and other senior administration officials continue to blame Netanyahu for the failure to begin negotiations? The latest shot across the Israeli bow came this month from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who — after publicly trashing the idea of a military strike on Iran — bluntly advised Israel to “just get to the damn table” with Abbas.
As my colleague David Ignatius observed, Panetta was “voicing comments that are widely shared by U.S. officials but rarely expressed so bluntly in public.”
But if Ross is right, why does the administration fault Netanyahu for failure to “get to the damn table?” How can he get to a table if his partner has already ruled out talking to him? The Israeli leader certainly has his faults, and he bears some of the responsibility for the impasse. But, according to the White House’s own expert on the subject, it is Abbas who is intransigent.