March 13, 2012


Obama Betrayed Ideals on Israel: The president sacrificed his ideals and misplayed his hand. How Bibi got the better of Barack. (Peter Beinart,  March 12, 2012, Daily Beast)

At the behest of Hillary Clinton, his new secretary of state, Obama appointed former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his envoy for the peace process. It was a telling choice. In 2000, Bill Clinton had asked Mitchell to investigate the causes of the second intifada, an investigation that led Mitchell to write a report calling on Israel to freeze settlement construction. The report also demanded that the Palestinians more aggressively fight terrorism, but by 2009, even Israeli military officials conceded that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were doing just that. In his new job, Mitchell wanted to show Palestinians that eschewing violence brought tangible rewards. The prize Abbas and Fayyad wanted: a settlement freeze.

But the administration's motivation was not only instrumental; it was moral, too. In March 2009, Hillary Clinton, Mitchell, and a few aides traveled from Jerusalem, where they had met Israeli officials, to Ramallah. As they sped through the West Bank, passing boulders that blocked Palestinian villages from accessing settler-dominated bypass roads, the Americans grew palpably uncomfortable. "There was a kind of silence and people were careful," remembers one former senior State Department official, "but it was like my God, you crossed that border and it was apartheid." In meetings in Washington, Obama spoke bluntly about Palestinian suffering. One Washington insider noted that in all his years of going to the White House, he had never heard Clinton, Reagan, or either Bush speak the same way.

Inside the Obama administration, the call for a settlement freeze sparked little dissent. After all, Mitchell had proposed a freeze in 2001, and two years later, by accepting the Bush administration's "Road Map" to peace, Israel had actually agreed to one, although it was never carried out. National Security Adviser James Jones had written an unpublished 2008 study that reportedly criticized Israeli policy in the West Bank. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had a record of opposing settlement growth too. In 2003, he had been one of only four Jewish members of Congress to sign a letter endorsing the Road Map. Privately, he told associates that the Bush administration had coddled Israel, and that it was time for Israel's American friends to speak more frankly to the leaders of the Jewish state. When Netanyahu tried to establish back-channel discussions with Emanuel, bypassing Mitchell, Obama's chief of staff refused. 

Among the few administration skeptics of a settlement freeze was former Clinton administration envoy Dennis Ross, who considered it unrealistic given Netanyahu's right-leaning government. But Ross was working at the State Department, not the White House, and his job description was restricted to Iran. He had tried to broaden his mandate during the transition, arguing that in order to effectively craft Iran strategy he needed the freedom to dabble in every aspect of Middle East policy, including the peace process. A statement by Ross's former employer, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had even declared that he would be working on a "wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran." But Jones promised Mitchell that Ross would not meddle in his work, and when a State Department spokesman announced Ross's appointment, he insisted that Ross "will not be, in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process." Whether Ross abided by that pledge while at the State Department is a matter of sharp dispute. But either way, he did not control the Israel-Palestinian portfolio. Not yet.

If the White House was largely united, Obama and Netanyahu could hardly have been further apart. Not only was Netanyahu a longtime champion of settlement expansion, but during his own election campaign he had refused to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state and made it clear that he considered peace talks aimed at creating one a waste of time. 

Posted by at March 13, 2012 9:01 PM

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