Reading the early reports about the apparent U.S. decision to give up on its efforts to win a renewed Israeli settlement freeze in return for a big package of incentives, I can't help but wonder if what we're seeing here is simply an administration with absolutely no sense of direction.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters in Israel said that the administration “determined a further settlement moratorium would not provide the basis for a framework agreement,” in the words of the Jerusalem Post.
Really? What tipped them off? Can they honestly have believed that engaging in embarrassing haggling with the Netanyahu government over terms of the incentives package would revive negotiations in a way that could lead to quick progress before the nonrenewable freeze expired and things were back to square one?
This was a strategy that looked so silly at the outset that it was hard to believe there wasn't something else going on in the background.
Well, guess what; there wasn't, apparently; now it looks like that was just a desperate stab in the dark by an administration that doesn't seem any less clueless about how the Middle East works than it was almost two years ago.
It goes without saying that the Israeli right and its friends here will be overjoyed with this latest embarrassment to an administration they despise and setback to a peace process they fear.
I'm guessing the American Jewish left – and what's left of the Israeli left – is nearing despair with this development. If this is as it seems – the latest flub by an administration that lurches from one disaster to another – it's hard to imagine what optimistically used to be called the peace process hasn't been set back.
Ori Nir, over at Americans for Peace Now, sent over this statement: "As the broker of the Middle East peace process, the Obama administration must not drop the ball now. At this point, Obama must start playing hardball, demonstrating to the parties that there are consequences to obstructing peace efforts. Now is the time for the President to intensify his push for peace and redouble his pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to take the necessary steps toward peace."
But beset with crises at home and plunging confidence in American leadership in the Middle East, it's hard to see that happening.
It's also hard to see how this will be good for a region where a vacuum in U.S. leadership has often led to bloodshed. I hope I'm wrong and that there's a Plan B – a Plan B, maybe, a little smarter and more realistic than the administration's Plan A. But I'm not counting on it.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) doesn't see things the same way; in a statement late this afternoon, he said the decision “is welcome news” and that “The shift of effort away from the settlements issue, which was and is truly tangential to the future of the region, creates an opportunity to focus on the singular, totally consuming issue in the Middle East, namely stopping Iran’s determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons.”
No doubt that will be the line of the major pro-Israel lobby group, but it's going to be a pretty hard sell just about everywhere else.
We'll learn more on Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. Politico's Laura Rozen has a good inside look at the administration infighting over exactly what she'll say.
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