I've been pretty critical of the Obama administration's approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, but I also have a lot of sympathy; they can't walk away and maintain international credibility, but every option for breaking the negotiating deadlock is fraught with risk of a backlash in Israel – and with political risk here.
What brought this into focus was a conversation I had yesterday with a longtime pro-Israel activist who generally favors an active peace process.
We were talking about the push for a UN resolution condemning settlement construction; the mainstream pro-Israel leadership is mobilizing in a big way to head it off, and a group of activists under the leadership of Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is urging the administration to support it. (Americans for Peace Now and J Street are urging the administration not to veto such a resolution).
What's so bad about such a resolution, I asked this pro-peace process activist? After all, it's the decades-old position of the United States that settlement activity is a major obstacle on the road to peace and to U.S. efforts in the region.
The answer: if the Obama administration doesn't vigorously oppose the UN push, it will just back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner and harden his position on settlements. Far from defusing settlements as one big barrier to advancing the peace process, it will just make things worse.
I had to agree – and at the same time disagree.
Isn't this the excuse administration after administration has used to keep from applying real pressure on the Israeli government to limit settlement expansion that meant from the outset to make it harder to give back West Bank land to create a Palestinian state?
That fear, adroitly exploited by some pro-Israel forces, has provided Israeli leaders with a kind of immunity. Sure, they periodically get slapped on the wrist by U.S. administrations, but they know perfectly well that officials here live in dread of making things worse by speaking up more forcefully on settlements, not to mention the political consequences of overt pressure on the Jewish state.
But...strong U.S. pressure on the settlements issue often does backfire; that's a fact. The Obama administration's initial – and clumsy - insistence on a complete settlement freeze was enthusiastically embraced by the Palestinians as an excuse not to negotiate, and it clearly undermined faith in the administration among Israeli voters and got Bibi's back up.
So we screw up if we apply real pressure on settlements, we screw up if we buy into the argument that settlements really aren't the problem and we screw up if we back off out of fear of provoking a backlash in Israel.
No wonder it's so hard to develop effective policy on the issue in Washington.
It's the pro-Israel lobby line that settlements aren't the problem in the peace process, it's the failure of the Palestinians to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
You won't catch me defending the Palestinians on this; they have used just about every dodge available to avoid making the hard decisions and politically explosive compromises any peace agreement will require.
But how is that different from the Israelis, who know perfectly well that expanding settlements, especially those outside the blocks that everybody believes will stay part of Israel after an agreement, undermines Palestinian faith in the peace process and makes working out the details of any agreement far more difficult?
The fact that the Palestinians are behaving irresponsibly doesn't transform settlements into a non-issue; it just means there's one more big issue that has to be dealt with if there ever is going to be a peace agreement.
So it's not surprising this administration is foundering – just like its predecessors.
The Obama administration painted itself into a corner on settlements and has been unable to find a way out. And both Israel and the Palestinians, because both aren't eager for taking the difficult steps a deal will require, continue to exploit that. That's the problem that needs to be addressed: how do you advance a peace process that neither side really wants?
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