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Peace Process at Standstill

Did Obama apply pressure at the wrong time?

Marc Tracy
March 25, 2010

I’ll have more on What’s Next before the weekend, but for now there are two must-read pieces on where things stand between the United States and Israel, and between the two countries’ leaders. If things have seemed a bit different over these past couple weeks, that’s because it’s all really new, and, as Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, it’s “big stuff.”

Writing in Politico, Laura Rozen and Ben Smith—who have been all over this whole story from the beginning—do some valuable reporting that suggests, ultimately, that both sides can be faulted for respectively lacking coherent strategies.

Netanyahu, observers said, has refused—out of distrust—to signal to Obama how far he’s willing to go in final-status negotiations. That caginess deepens the distrust.

“If last night they shared that strategic vision, that’s what will repair the relationship,” said Makovsky. “There’s no sign of that, but of course we don’t know.”

Out of distrust and, one should add, out of common sense: If you reveal how much you are willing to concede before negotiations begin, you are putting yourself at a substantial disadvantage.

The Obama Administration saw the original housing announcement—immaculately juxtaposed with Vice President Biden’s arrival—as a golden opportunity to try to advance the externally desired goal of a full settlement freeze. But while the notion of applying extreme pressure to Israel to get concessions, while certainly opposed by the right, is at least debatable, it is looking more and more like the Administration was objectively unwise to apply that pressure now rather than later. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, a onetime Jerusalem bureau chief, argues as much:

U.S. pressure on Netanyahu will be needed if the peace process ever reaches the point where the genuinely contentious issues, like Palestinian refugees or the exact territorial tradeoffs, are on the table. But instead of waiting for that moment and pushing Netanyahu on a point where he might be vulnerable to domestic challenge, Obama picked a fight over something that virtually all Israelis agree on, and before serious discussions have even begun.

In doing so, the Administration may have unwittingly sabotaged the very peace process it was sponsoring. Remember: Both it and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wanted a full settlement freeze; Israel compromised by offering a West Bank freeze, paving the way to the proximity talks. Now, with the U.S. request for a full freeze, Abbas has virtually no choice but to walk away even from the proximity talks without one: “How could he do otherwise?” Diehl notes bitterly. “The Palestinian leader cannot be less pro-Palestinian than the White House.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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