Has Obama Made a Devil's Bargain with Israel?

Article excerpt

For Netanyahu the threat of peace has passed.-Uri Avnery in Haaretz, Sept. 23, 2009.

The committee that awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Prize for Peace may have been indulging in wishful thinking, hoping he will live up to the honor by achieving peace in the Middle East. If so, those hopes are yet to be realized. In an abrupt turnaround this fall, the administration abandoned its demand that Israel freeze settlement construction, rejected a U.N. report on Israel's war crimes in Gaza, and responded to concessions by Iran with threats of harsher sanctions.

The most generous explanation of such behavior is that Obama hopes that by going easy on Israel he will convince the Israelis to grant substantial concessions to the Palestinians and refrain from military action against Iran. He had reason to worry on both counts. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unwilling even to slow settlement construction, and his hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warns that an attack on Iran is only a matter of time.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process Obama promises to pursue is so far a distant fantasy. His special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell made two visits to the Middle East this fall and left both times with the two sides further apart than ever. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists on a complete settlement freeze, claiming the settlements spreading across the West Bank split the territory in two and make a Palestinian state impossible. Netanyahu told Mitchell there will be no settlement freeze and repeated his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Instead of pressing an earlier demand by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a complete stop to settlements, Mitchell found himself negotiating the terms of a moratorium. That effort failed as well. He returned to Washington without achieving even a temporary slowdown.

The failure of Mitchell's mission made Obama's next effort sound even more hollow. At a meeting with Abbas and Netanyahu at the U.N. in late September the president urged both men to begin negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement as soon as possible. "Despite all the obstacles, all the history, all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward," he told the two leaders.

The problem is that "all the obstacles, all the history" cannot be overcome without firm U.S. pressure on Israel. Ever since the Madrid peace talks in 1991 the Israelis have dragged out negotiations endlessly, while seizing more Palestinian territory and remaining unyielding on significant issues. Just before Mitchell's second visit to Israel in October Foreign Minister Lieberman said on Israeli Radio, "Anyone who says that within the next five years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict simply doesn't understand the situation and spreads delusions."

Past negotiations have above all highlighted the vast discrepancy in strength between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama did not explain how the Palestinians could negotiate successfully with Israel when the president of the most powerful country in the world is unable even to persuade the Israelis to stop building settlements.

Israel's American-born-and-raised ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, explained Obama's apparent surrender by saying, "The administration recognizes that Israel has made major concessions in the absence of any substantial concessions on the part of the Arabs." But Palestinians in the West Bank who watch Israel steal their land and uproot their orchards to make way for settlements, whose water is diverted to Israel, and who wait long hours at checkpoints, must have wondered what concessions Obama expected them to make.

The administration has been notably silent on Israel's crippling blockade of Gaza, even though the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically bans such collective punishment. The people of Gaza received an additional blow in late September, when the U. …