washingtonpost.com
It's up to Netanyahu

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Few things are as dangerous in the Middle East as well-intentioned outsiders. They invariably bring unintended consequences upon those they would guide to a better life. Ask Job. Or consider the case of Mahmoud Abbas, whose hurt and fury over foreign meddling has triggered his threat to quit as Palestinian leader.

No one could accuse President Obama or Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa of harboring ill will toward the president of the Palestinian Authority. But their separate worthy initiatives have resulted in pushing Abbas into a political dead end that complicates the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Obama administration's approach to the Middle East peace process is on shaky ground. Plan A was to get concessions from Arab states to balance an Israeli freeze on settlement construction. After months of being stiffed by both sides, the administration expects that Israel will finally offer some movement on the settlements issue in the days ahead and clear the way for "final status" negotiations that would start with provisional borders for an independent Palestinian state.

But the Arab mood has darkened significantly in the interim. The Arabs say that the encouraging rhetoric of Obama's Cairo speech in June has been washed away by his failure to deliver a total settlement freeze that includes East Jerusalem -- a condition that the new Israeli offer will not meet. A total freeze has become an Arab precondition for resuming negotiations with Israel.

Israelis, on the other hand, are newly confident of U.S. support, which rattles the Arabs even more. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu got a cold shower from Obama and congressional leaders when he visited Washington in May. He was told that he should accept the principle of a Palestinian state, which he grudgingly did last summer.

But Netanyahu emerged from a Nov. 9 White House meeting with Obama able to claim credibly that the two men had talked as allies about Middle East peace and Iran's nuclear program -- with Obama setting a new end-of-December deadline for his engagement efforts with Tehran to produce results. (That original deadline was October, and it is almost certain to slip again.)

What changed? Part of the answer is Goldstone and his U.N.-commissioned report, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes during its winter assault on the Gaza Strip. Stung by the accusations and prodded by Washington, the Israeli government -- which refused to cooperate with Goldstone's investigation -- is debating carrying out its own investigation of the Gaza operation.

Whatever the Goldstone report's merits -- and they are lessened by its deliberate demonization of Israel's motives and milquetoast exculpations of Hamas's actions -- it seems to have been written with no feel for the political consequences it would bring for the peace process. The report also ignored the concern that it would create at the Pentagon and in other Western military headquarters with forces fighting guerrillas who use civilian populations and infrastructure as shields in modern asymmetrical warfare.

On Capitol Hill, misgivings about Netanyahu were buried in a reflexive gathering around Israel under U.N.-inspired attack. The Goldstone fracas also helped push the politically sensitive Obama White House back toward a more supportive, traditional U.S. attitude toward Israel. Abbas -- not glimpsing the quagmire he was lurching toward -- went along with Washington's request to ask the United Nations to delay taking up Goldstone's report, only to back down when Jordan and Egypt joined Hamas in unleashing ferocious criticism of Abbas in their media.

"He is hurt and angry," says an Arab official who has talked to Abbas recently. "He has been let down by everybody, especially Egypt," which has tilted toward cooperating with Hamas at the expense of Abbas's Fatah movement in recent months. The Egyptian turn (caused more by internal succession problems than regional factors) has also antagonized Saudi Arabia, which is locked in an increasingly open and hostile war of words with Iran, Hamas's most important patron.

This is a combustible mix of betrayals, failures and intentions gone awry. So Netanyahu may yet throw Abbas a lifeline on settlements if only to keep his weakened opponent in office.

Israel's long occupation of Palestinian territory has helped produce the cynicism and weak leadership on both sides that confound would-be international shapers of peace and moral rectitude. Outsiders cannot resolve this conflict: Only an Israeli decision to end that occupation in fast order can lead to the security Israelis need and deserve, and to the dignity that Palestinians seek through a state of their own. That is the broader, more vital decision that Netanyahu needs to make.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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