Netanyahu and Obama: Who's fooling who?
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - While Israeli officials claimed a major win in United States
President Barack Obama's decision to shelve his long-held demand for a freeze
on Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, some analysts here
believe it may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory for the hardline government of Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The decision, announced at the trilateral meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in New York City on Tuesday,
puts an apparent end to a seven-month effort by the US administration -
strongly resisted by Netanyahu - to gain Israel's agreement to freeze
settlement activity as the first step toward a renewed peace process.
But the frustration and impatience expressed by Obama before the meeting, as
well as his apparent determination to launch permanent-status talks between the
Israelis and the Palestinians in the very near future, suggest that the White
House has decided to focus its efforts and engage directly on the terms of a
final peace agreement.
"It is past time to talk about starting negotiations; it is time to start
moving forward," Obama declared on Tuesday.
"Permanent status negotiations must begin - and begin soon," he said, adding
that he had asked Netanyahu and Abbas to send delegations to Washington next
week to meet with his special Mideast envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, to
begin laying out the terms of reference on which they were prepared to
He also said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would report back on the status
of the talks by mid-October.
On Wednesday, Obama sounded both more specific and more determined. "The time
has come to re-launch negotiations - without preconditions - that address the
permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders,
refugees, and Jerusalem," he told the UN General Assembly, noting that
Washington still "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli
"The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security - a
Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable,
independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the
occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian
people," he said, pledging, "I will not waver in my pursuit of peace."
The impasse on the settlements issue and its de-linking from permanent-status
talks was taken by most analysts here as a clear victory for Netanyahu and a
major defeat both for the Palestinians, who have insisted on a freeze as a
precondition for entering into final-status talks since Obama first demanded an
end to settlement construction last spring, as well as a setback for the US
"Netanyahu 1, and Abbas, Obama and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,
zero," Aaron David Miller, a former US peace negotiator now at the Woodrow
Wilson International Center here, told McClatchy Newspapers Tuesday in a
concise summary of his analysis of Tuesday's meeting.
"You have the Israelis crowing and the Palestinians looking humiliated in the
face of hardliners," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute
"That's not a good place to be. We're now in a somewhat more difficult
situation than we were before these discussions began," he added.
Indeed, while the Israeli prime minister on Tuesday insisted that he was ready
to take part in such talks, some analysts here noted that Netanyahu has felt
more comfortable dealing with so-called "interim" issues, such as settlements
and other confidence-building measures (CBMs), in part because he could count
on the support of his right-wing coalition and even the broader Israeli public
which, according to recent polls, has become increasingly hostile toward Obama.
"Netanyahu's preferred approach was to focus on interim issues and CBMs and to
avoid negotiating the core issues on which his positions are the most
unreasonable," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiations currently
based at the New America Foundation.
By delinking settlements - even while continuing to denounce their construction
as illegitimate - Obama, in a kind of diplomatic jujitsu, will now force
Netanyahu to deal with final-status issues that, among other things, will
challenge his ability to maintain his coalition.
"What we have been witnessing thus far ... has been a table-setting exercise,"
Levy wrote on Foreignpolicy.com.
He argued that the impasse reached after months of effort in gaining a
settlement freeze may be part of a "more sophisticated strategy" that will
ultimately lead to the "presentation and active promotion, at the appropriate
moment, of an American plan for implementing a comprehensive peace" in light of
the long-standing inability of the two sides to reach one themselves.
Other analysts disagreed with that analysis, insisting that the administration,
even as it has raised the stakes on the urgency of reaching a final peace
accord, has not yet made clear how hard it is willing to push Netanyahu, in
particular, toward serious negotiations.
"It is quite clear from round one that Obama underestimated the tenacity of
Netanyahu, and the administration did not seem to have thought through what
they would do if they didn't get the cooperation they wanted [on settlements],"
said Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University
and co-author of the "Israel Lobby".
"If you can't get Bibi [Netanyahu] to agree to a temporary freeze, how does one
possibly imagine getting him to agree to 1) borders that would establish a
viable Palestinian state; 2) a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; 3) some
formula for the Temple Mount; 4) an agreement on refugees; and 5) the
withdrawal of the settlers outside the wall?" he added.
For his part, Zogby believes the administration should have simply demanded a
settlement freeze instead of negotiating the precise terms over its scope and
duration - as Mitchell tried to do over the last several months - and gone
directly to final-status talks from the outset.
But he did not exclude the possibility of a larger strategy at work, noting
Mitchell's proven skills as a negotiator in Northern Ireland. "The delinking of
settlements from final status could be a change in tack, or it could be simply
salvaging a really bad situation," Zogby said.
"I do know that Netanyahu is a master-maneuverer who uses every situation to
his advantage, but I'm confident that Mitchell is quite attuned to that," he
added. "And, in any event, we're a long way from the end of the game."