As I have read press reports of the U.S. offering massive incentives to Israel in an effort to secure a three month settlement freeze, I've wanted to give the U.S. peace negotiators the benefit of the doubt. On too many levels, however, I'm having trouble understanding the logic behind all of this.
First of all, I have a problem with the very idea that we are negotiating with the Israelis on the terms of a settlement freeze. If settlement construction is "illegitimate" then what are we talking about?
There was some hope early on when President Obama stated that settlement activity must end, and this was then echoed and amplified by Secretary Clinton making it clear that the President meant "all" construction. But when Israel dispatched Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Washington to negotiate terms and the U.S., instead of sending him home, began a long and involved discussion with the Israelis, hope began to fade.
What ensued was a year and a half of mixed signals and meandering -- which continues until today. On the one hand, the U.S. insists that settlement construction is wrong, but then argues that existing settlements are "accepted realities." The Israelis aren't fools. They know that if they build, there will be complaints. But they also know they can weather this storm, and when they do (as they have in the past), what they build they can keep. They've been at this game for 40+ years and know that if they maneuver and buy time, they win.
I also don't understand the logic behind a three month one-time-only renewal of a freeze. Unless the Administration has a trick up their sleeves and are supremely confident that they can work magic in 90 days, this freeze will end, and the Israelis will declare that their obligation has also ended. I suppose that the assumption here is that in the next three months an agreement can be reached on borders including what the Israelis call "Jerusalem" (which it must always be remembered includes not just the Holy City, but their "land grab" of large swatches of the West Bank to the north, east and south of the city). The idea appears to be that the Israelis will accept borders that encapsulate the major settlements they have already built (something which the U.S. appears to have accepted) with land around them allowing for "natural growth" and the Palestinians will then accept this fait accompli. Within these "accepted borders" construction will be allowed while negotiations on other issues continue. Since the same hard-liners in Netanyahu's government who do not accept a limited freeze are even more opposed to returning land to the Palestinians, and since the Palestinians most likely will not be able to easily accept the borders that Israel may offer, this entire approach, I fear, is less a "trick up their sleeves" and more a risky "pipe dream."
It also makes no sense that the U.S. is offering incentives, on a grand scale, to Israel for a mere three month freeze. The logic here is that Prime Minister Netanyahu needs this to convince his government to accept the terms of a freeze. But Netanyahu's government is itself the problem. He could, if he were truly committed to a negotiated peace agreement, form a different and broader coalition government with other parties. But it is his insistence on maintaining his hard-line anti-peace coalition that has created the current impasse. This is not how Bush and Baker dealt with Shamir in 1991-1992, or how Clinton dealt with Netanyahu in 1998. In both of those cases, U.S. pressure helped force a change in Israel. In this instance, however, we are rewarding Netanyahu's intransigence and supporting his hard-line coalition. By any measure, this is establishing a dangerous precedent, with troubling consequences down the road.
If the Israeli Prime Minister cannot get his coalition to agree to stop building "illegitimate" settlements without huge U.S. incentives, how will he get them to agree (and how much more will it cost the U.S. to get them to agree) to any reasonable withdrawal from the occupied lands?
So is the logic here that Israel will go through this "agonizing" internal debate (sweetened with incentives) to agree to stop doing what they should not have been doing all along, and then put the ball in the Palestinian court, forcing them to accept what they were never a party to in the first place, or appear to be the "spoilers"?
And "what about the Palestinians"? What troubles me most in all of this is the degree to which the U.S. has inserted itself in the negotiating process not on behalf of the Palestinians, but instead of the Palestinians. I have real reservations about the extent to which some of the recent statements made by American officials and some of the reported incentives the U.S. appear to have offered to the Israelis "give away the store" and limit Palestinian flexibility and leverage. By appearing to agree to Israel's demand that they keep settlement blocs and maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley, the U.S. risks weighing in on two critical final status issues in a manner that predetermines their outcome. And by agreeing to block any Palestinian effort to go to the United Nations as a "court of last resort", the U.S. has further constrained Palestinian options.
Since it is my understanding that these matters have not been agreed to or even discussed with the Palestinians, or other Arab leaders, one can only imagine their consternation and loss of confidence as they witness this unfolding affair.
What, then, is the logic?
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.