Obama's peace initiative on Palestine suffered a stunning, perhaps fatal, blow last week. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu rejected out of hand any freeze on the West Bank settlements which the White House had pressed as a necessary first step toward serious negotiations. The Obama plan is now stillborn, never having drawn a hopeful breath. This latest setback for the administration's foreign policy team, and for Obama himself, was masked by last week's other headline stories -- Iran, Afghanistan, the G - 20. Its dismaying implications will be at least as great.
The genesis of this latest diplomatic defeat deserves close examination. For it exposes the defects in the president's statecraft.
The White House's approach to the combustible Palestinian issue was predicated on four assumptions. Each is fallacious. The key assumption was belief in the president's ability to wrest from the Israeli leadership concessions of sufficient importance and scope as to lay the foundations for a durable settlement -- that is one. Obama at first seemed prepared to invest considerable political capital and personal prestige in the effort. In fact, as we now know, he backed away from doing that -- preferring the course of least resistance. Success, as he saw it, would require making his demands on the Israelis credible -- that was two. Credibility, in turn, meant neutralizing the powerful Israeli lobby and its supporters in Congress -- that was three. Ross' involvement, along with that of Rahm Emanuel, became a crucial political shock absorber for the White House. Another critical assumption concerned the Palestinians. It was the conviction that the commitments extracted from Netanyahu et al would prove adequate to win their acceptance by Abbas and Fatah -- that is four.
All these suppositions are illusory. The first already has proven false. The current Israeli government is even more resistant to proposals for a viable two state solution than its recalcitrant predecessors. It may bend but not break unless Obama threatens a rupture of
Washington's all purpose commitment to the Jewish state. There is nothing in his performance to date that suggests he has either the necessary conviction or courage to do that. On issue after issue, he has shown a strong reluctance to challenge established thinking and to confront powerful interests. Just the opposite. Retreat from positions boldly declared has become the hallmark of his administration. At times, the retreat follows brief skirmishes. At other times, it is preemptive -- prompted by skirmishes in the president's own mind. This is the singular Obama style evident on major domestic issues. The process begins with a firm statement of the problem, a clarion call for action, and a pledge to force change. Then, there is the period of eerie calm -- no plan is unveiled, no strategy executed beyond entreaties that the protagonists act in the reasonable manner the president has outlined. Obama makes brief public appearances punctuated by further proclamations of the imperative to act, still without any specifics or sustained effort. Whatever comes out of this muddle is declared historic and promising. In this case, so blunt and public was Netanyahu's rejection of the American proposal to do something on the key settlement issue that such a declaration is impossible. In the same vein, though, Obama rushed to say that the settlement matter is not so important after all, just a piece of a complex problem. Just as the "public option" was redefined as "just a sliver" of the overall package.
There is no virtue in this approach. It is classic avoidance behavior. Vintage Obama, as we have come to recognize it. He is a man of personal audacity, but little courage; one of that rare breed who say everything with strong conviction, but whose conviction is only genuine at the moment he speaks.
What does this mean for a possible initiative on Palestine? Several consequences jump to mind. First, the goal will be stated in general terms so as not to set a clear marker of success. Second, Obama is likely to overestimate his personal powers of persuasion as reinforced by the might and authority of the United States. That is to say, he will expect to bring the parties into line with only slight resort to coercion. Accordingly, his instinctive avoidance of head-on confrontations will leave him unprepared, psychologically and politically, for the requisite arm twisting with its inescapable political reaction from the Israeli lobby at home. Third, the expectation that the Ross/Emanuel tandem can protect his flank will prove ill-founded -- even if the two of them do genuinely share his commitment and interest in a settlement. Fourth, he is likely to underestimate what terms and conditions will be acceptable to the Palestinians. There is no sign that he or his advisors appreciate how constrained Abbas is by the reality of Hamas' popularity eclipsing that of Fatah. They may well be under the further illusion that the Hamas issue can be finessed by extracting from the Israelis such generous concessions that Hamas will have no choice but to go along with an outlined accord that meets with an overwhelmingly favorable response on the part of all Palestinians.
The ultimate outcome looks to be failure. There is a real possibility of it ending in a further tragedy for all parties embroiled in the conflict. In either eventuality, the ripple effects will spread widely across the region to the detriment of America's other parlous engagements. The one thing that we can say with some certainty is that the White House will declare any result, short of a return to widespread violence, to be a breakthrough and will call on all parties to keep a positive attitude -- going forward.