Like a room filled with methane, the combustible element of failure waited silently for a spark. Neither special envoy George Mitchell nor President Obama could budge the Palestinians from their demand for an Israeli settlement freeze.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with an established pro-Israeli bias, is known to bite. Coming off a three day jaunt in Pakistan that left America with even less friends, she detonated another bombshell in another conflict, her diplomacy more stagecraft than statecraft.
“What the prime minister has offered, a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described, no new starts, for example, is unprecedented in the context of prior to negotiations,” an upbeat Clinton said in Jerusalem, next to the solemn Benjamin Netanyahu.
An Israeli cheer session so late in the hour poses obvious obstacles to a two-state solution, indicated by the Palestinian’s swift and harsh response. Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for PA president Mahmoud Abbas, warned, “The negotiations are in a state of paralysis, and the result of Israel's intransigence and America's back-pedaling is that there is no hope of negotiations on the horizon.”
Senior negotiator Saeb Erekat added, “Pressuring Palestinians to make further concessions to accommodate Israeli intransigence is not the answer.”
But Clinton wasn’t so wrong to state her true position as to retreat from a hail of missiles under a two-face shield. “This offer falls far short of what our preference would be,” she said a day later in Marrakech, “but if it is acted upon it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."
"Successive American administrations of both parties have opposed Israel's settlement policy," she argued. "That is absolutely a fact, and the Obama administration's position on settlements is clear, unequivocal and it has not changed.”
Several Palestinians thanked her for “clarifying,” including PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki.
Yet the next day she deployed another character, mixing a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Palestinians with praise for the White House. She told Al Jazeera, “I think it is important for your viewers to say to themselves, 'well, we can continue with what we have now – which is a halt to nothing – or we can halt all new settlement activity'.”
“It is not everything that the president asked for,” Clinton stressed, “but it is much closer to anything that anyone has ever achieved in getting an Israeli government to agree. The Israelis have responded to the call of the U.S., the Palestinians and the Arab world to stop settlement activity by expressing a willingness to restrain settlement activity.”
Claiming that Israel is responding to Palestinian calls is incomprehensible given how they just responded. Clinton herself admitted that Israel hasn’t met US conditions. And in the Arab world, Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa vented, “The Americans couldn't bring something serious... I'm really afraid we're about to see failure... failure is in the atmosphere.”
Clinton defended Israel before adding, “I think, as you know, President Obama clearly said he wanted to see an end to settlement activity.”
But that's the problem - no one knows where the White House stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Obama gave away Jerusalem at an AIPAC speech then waxed poetically about the Palestinian cause in Cairo. His personal affirmations of Palestine clash a circle that includes Dennis Ross, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and lesser known pro-Israelis. No Palestinian commands his ear.
Akiva Eldar, chief political commentator for the Ha'aretz, commented, “It is a betrayal. The secretary of state, I assume with the full support of the president, has turned around after 10 months of negotiating the precondition of freezing settlements... she says there is no precedent to preconditions.”
If Obama truly believes in a settlement freeze, his message is being hijacked by Clinton’s seesawing. Abu Rudeina told the AFP upon her arrival in Cairo, "Clinton's backtracking on her remarks, especially with regard to the partial freeze of settlements, is not sufficient to restart negotiations with Israel."
The White House must turn its extravagant production into reality. Clinton gave a show, not a serious effort to launch negotiations, and it fell apart. The PA told America point blank that a settlement freeze is the door to negotiations, yet US officials all the way to President Obama are still looking for a window.
“We should not put the credibility and the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority again under jeopardy if the Palestinian Authority will accept anything less than a total freeze,” said Malki. “It will be detrimental to the future and the existence of the Palestinian authority as a whole.”
America needs to get on the right side of the settlement issue and stay there. The PA’s demand for a freeze works both ways - while it stalls negotiations, it also unlocks them. “We do not put conditions for resuming negotiations,” Erekat said, “but we want the talks resumed on the basis of the provisions of the road map, which stipulates the cessation of all forms of settlement activity in the Palestinian territories.”
"We have shown a willingness to do unprecedented things to relaunch the process," Netanyahu retorted. “But we are encountering the opposite from the Palestinians. We are encountering preconditions from the Palestinians that haven't been set in all the 16 years of the peace process."
Except preconditions didn’t exist because settlement expansion hadn’t progressed to its current point; now a settlement freeze is required to restore a sense of balance to the region. Clinton brushed on a valid point, saying, “There has never been a precondition. It's always been an issue within the negotiations.”
The most practical solution is to freeze all settlement activity in order to restart negotiations, then negotiate the status of future settlement growth. However, focusing solely on settlements diminishes the wider picture.
Softening on one final-status issue creates the impression that America will soften on all issues. Palestinians are bent on a settlement freeze because they believe they’ll get fleeced in final status negotiations. Serious doubts exist that refugees will return home or that a Palestinian state will operate under its own sovereignty. They need to get something while they can.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas explained, “Jerusalem was in danger, and without Jerusalem, there will be no peace.”
Clinton also misses the point when she applauds Netanyahu for making a fair offer. Muslims don’t like Netanyahu and they don’t like America covering for him. Clinton, "can praise Mr. Netanyahu if she wants," Moussa said, "but we're not impressed. We see the policies of Mr. Netanyahu as a major impediment toward peace.”
"I know Netanyahu is pragmatic and everyone tells me he has changed," Abbas reportedly told officials last week. "But I don't see it. I fear it's the same Netanyahu of 1996. How much longer can I still give him credit? I'm willing to give Netanyahu one more chance. But we have no more than two to three weeks during which something must happen.”
President Obama will fail to bring peace to Israel and Palestine if he pursues his current course. A settlement freeze must be supported because it is impermanent, to be determined in final status negotiations. His position mustn’t change through himself or his officials. Whipping back and forth is aggravating the peace process, not providing stability or clarity.
And Abbas is being generous - most Palestinians have no faith in Netanyahu. They aren’t buying the show.
Neither Mitchell, Clinton, nor Obama have produced tangible results through their diplomacy. America must change the reality on the ground, not dress it up, to jump-start the peace process.