In the next few days you're going to hear a lot of spin about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy on Friday night – the first major administration pronouncement since it abandoned its efforts to win a 90 day extension of Israel's settlement moratorium in return for a rich package of incentives, a deal they hoped would lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Here's what I think it really means: a once-optimistic administration has concluded that neither Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership really wants the peace process to proceed at this time. And without a willingness to compromise, there seems little point in wasting U.S. resources in pursuit of the hopeless.
The telling phrase in Clinton's talk was this: “It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires.”
For the Palestinians, that means the decision to actually negotiate and not hide behind Washington, or threaten unilateral statehood declarations. It means stopping incitement as a show of good faith. It means not ramping up a campaign to deny any Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that means halting provocative settlement building, which everybody knows is intended at least in part to make ultimate withdrawal more difficult, and it means agreeing that all the final status issues – including Jerusalem – are really on the table.
The administration misread the climate for negotiations from the outset, or had an inflated view of its own ability to change it quickly; the month or so of haggling with Netanyahu over an incentives package apparently brought them back to earth.
The result of that clop upside the head: they concluded there's simply no way either side is ready, willing or able to get serious about compromise, so they bagged the whole thing – not a surprising conclusion for an administration beset with other, more pressing political, economic and international problems.
If the administration has a plan beyond going back to the old status quo, they didn't reveal it in Clinton's speech on Friday night.
What happens next? Not much, in all likelihood.
Special envoy George Mitchell will return to the region and continue talking to the parties, but without any real expectation of progress; U.S.-Israel relations will cool a few degrees but not go into the deep freeze; there will be ongoing efforts to help the Palestinians continue building a state and economic infrastructure, but on a relatively low level; the administration – like its predecessor - will continue to protest new settlement expansion but mostly perfunctorily, which means building will continue apace.
The American Jewish and Israeli left had hoped Clinton would offer some concrete ideas for bridging gaps, or even the outline of a U.S. plan, but the administration obviously concluded that would be a nonstarter in an environment in which neither party really wanted to play the game.
The big pro-Israel groups will publicly welcome what they will describe as a return to a more pragmatic mode of U.S. peacemaking and make optimistic noises that now, finally, progress could be possible. But behind the scenes they will be heaving great sighs of relief that by dialing down the peace process, the administration will in all likelihood leave Israel alone and put off any day of reckoning over explosive issues like Jerusalem, settlements, boundaries and refugees.
Israel will blame the Palestinians for the breakdown and ignore the role of settlements or the impossibility of advancing the peace process with Netanyahu's current coalition; the Palestinians will blame Israel, ignoring their disruptive, counterproductive refusal to negotiate without a complete settlement freeze, the ongoing incitement in their schools and government structures and the fact Fatah doesn't even control populous Gaza.
In her Politico blog, Laura Rozen quoted some more optimistic analysts, including Daniel Levy, director of the Century Foundation's Prospects for Peace Initiative, who said the administration is “doing what might have been wise much earlier -- that is making indirect talks 'substantive two-way conversations' ... about real things. I would argue that back-to-back talks, if the U.S. throws its weight around a bit, are more likely to advance the ball than direct bilateral negotiations."
Well, maybe. But I don't see much likelihood this administration – facing huge political challenges and other, more pressing international crises – is going to “throw its weight around” in the current environment.
In short, this looks like a major retreat to me.
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