Monday, June 01, 2009

Obama & Israel. The president takes the wrong approach

Paradigm shift

President Barack Obama says he doesn't have time to watch cable television news. We sure hope he hasn't given up reading The Washington Post, and that he made time for Jackson Diehl's remarkably illuminating column, "Abbas's Waiting Game" (May 29).

Diehl interviewed the Palestinian leader prior to his White House meeting with Obama on Thursday. The columnist, not a known Zionist apologist, labeled Mahmoud Abbas's thinking "hardline."

If the president wants to know why leaning on Israel while basically giving so-called moderate Palestinians a free ride won't advance peace, he'll find the answers in Diehl's column outlining Abbas's Five Noes: Would he negotiate with Binyamin Netanyahu without preconditions? No. Would he recognize Israel as a Jewish state? No. Would he consider territorial compromise? No. Would he compromise on refugees? No. Would he modify the Arab Peace Initiative to make it a more viable negotiating tool? Absolutely not.

Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office, "Abu Mazen" sounded like a different man, telling reporters: "I believe that time is of the essence," and that talks with Israel needed to resume "right now."

But just the day before, Abbas told Diehl he had all the time in the world. He'll wait out Hamas (though his US-trained elite forces killed several of their gunmen in Kalkilya on Monday). He'll wait "for Israel to freeze settlements."

"Until then," Abbas candidly admitted, "in the West Bank we have a good reality... the people are living a normal life."

This from a man who claims that "time is of the essence."

Palestinian negotiators say there's no point in talking to Netanyahu because he does not want to discuss final status issues. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that when Abbas was negotiating precisely those issues with Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni in 2008, he refused to take yes for an answer and close a deal with them.

PALESTINIAN "moderates" say they'll wait patiently for Obama to force a collapse of the Netanyahu government allowing the supposedly more pliable Livni to become premier.

That's curious.

The Kadima government offered Abbas 97 percent of the West Bank (plus land swaps in Israel proper to make up the difference). Olmert was willing to concede on territory, refugees, even on Jerusalem.

Diehl: "[Abbas] confirmed that Olmert 'accepted the principle' of the 'right of return' of Palestinian refugees - something no previous Israeli prime minister had done - and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. In all, Olmert's peace offer was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of [George W.] Bush or Bill Clinton..."

Not good enough, said Abbas.

Yet now he is pushing the idea - on a willing administration - that it is Netanyahu and the settlements that are the stumbling blocks to an agreement.

US policymakers have always opposed Israel's presence beyond the Green Line. Condoleezza Rice was here only last June complaining about settlements. Still, there's no denying the disturbing change in tone emanating from Washington, which is elevating the settlements issue to an importance which is disproportionate. It's being accompanied by a paradigm shift: pressing Israel while coddling the Palestinians.

This approach is destined to leave both Israelis and Palestinians embittered and no closer to resolving the conflict.

Final borders need to be negotiated. And when they are, all settlements on the "wrong" side of the line will be dismantled - just as they were when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. It would therefore be reasonable, in the interim, for Washington not to make an issue of modest levels of natural growth in these communities.

At the same time, a freeze within the strategic settlement blocs, including Jerusalem, that Israel intends to retain in any agreement is simply not on the agenda.

That said, the Israeli government needs to better articulate the fact that no new settlements are being authorized beyond the security barrier. And it needs to move with all deliberate speed to dismantle illegal outposts permanently.

When American decision-makers denigrate painful Israeli sacrifices - including disengagement; when they disregard the commitments of their predecessors, they are not fostering peace. Rather, they're giving mainstream Israelis cause to fear making further sacrifices.

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