The Mideast impasse

Thursday, November 5, 2009

PALESTINIAN President Mahmoud Abbas has participated in peace negotiations with five Israeli governments that refused to halt Jewish settlement construction. Yet Mr. Abbas has rejected an appeal from the Obama administration to start talks with the center-right coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu, putting one of the administration's primary foreign policy goals on indefinite hold. The reason: "America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze," a statement said.

Has Mr. Abbas suddenly realized that settlements are the key obstacle to a Palestinian state? Hardly: In private, senior Palestinian officials readily concede that the issue is secondary. Instead, the Palestinian pose is a product of the Obama administration's missteps -- and also of the fact that the opportunity Mr. Obama said he perceived to broker a two-state settlement is not so visible to leaders in the region.

The administration set the stage last spring for this diplomatic impasse by demanding "a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth -- any kind of settlement activity," as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it. No Israeli government has agreed to such terms, and the administration's public insistence on them only served to boost Mr. Netanyahu's approval rating with Israelis, while Mr. Obama's plummeted to the single digits. The administration now wants to set the issue aside and move on with the talks; officials say a settlement freeze was never a precondition. But Ms. Clinton is having trouble clambering out of the hole she helped to dig: Last weekend she praised as "unprecedented" an Israeli proposal for limiting settlement growth; this week, after Arab protests, she backpedaled.

Mr. Abbas has a similar predicament. Having adopted the original U.S. demand as his own, he cannot easily drop it. Arab leaders could provide Mr. Abbas political cover, but neither they nor he seems to share Mr. Obama's notion that the time is ripe for a deal. Apart from the settlement issue, the Israelis and Palestinians are far apart in their proposals for what negotiations would cover and how quickly they would progress. Israelis note that Mr. Abbas already rejected a far-reaching peace offer by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinians rightly suspect that Mr. Netanyahu would be less compromising than Mr. Olmert.

The Obama administration's working assumption has been that energetic diplomacy by the United States could induce both sides to move quickly toward peace. In fact, progress in the Middle East has always begun with initiatives by Israelis or Arabs themselves. At the moment, the most promising idea comes from Mr. Abbas's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who has vowed to build the institutions of a Palestinian state within the next two years, with or without peace talks. Negotiations between the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders could provide indirect support for that initiative, even if there is little progress. But the administration would do well to refocus its efforts on supporting Mr. Fayyad.

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