It’s hardly surprising that U.S. efforts to coax Israel into extending its West Bank settlement freeze seem to have derailed. What was unclear from the initial reports: does the Obama administration have a Plan B, or does this represent the effective end of its efforts to find a route to peace for Israel and the Palestinians?
From the beginning, it never made much sense to us to invest U.S. prestige in an unbecoming effort to lure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the peace table with a rich package of incentives that included F-35 warplanes.
It was hard for us to picture how a non-renewable, 90-day extension of the freeze would materially change an environment in which neither Israel nor the Palestinians seemed particularly anxious to renew their troubled talks.
While Netanyahu at least offered verbal support for U.S. efforts to revive direct negotiations, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signaled complete indifference — suggesting that once again, he hoped U.S. negotiators would deliver to him a deal for Palestinian statehood that he is reluctant to seek through direct negotiations.
We await details about exactly what the administrations decision means. But we can’t help but be troubled by its broader implications, including appearing to put the onus on Israel when in fact it was Washington’s poor choice to make settlements the centerpiece of its peace strategy that created the problem in the first place.
The administration stumbled badly with that initial demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze, while demanding little, if anything from the Palestinians. President Barack Obama failed to understand how his active outreach to the Islamic world and seeming indifference to public opinion in an understandably sensitive Israel was playing in the Jewish state. The results were perfectly predictable: plunging support for his leadership and for the kind of peace process he has advocated.
Israelis have proven their willingness to take risks for peace, but not when the Palestinians won’t even come to the table.
Now there’s the reported end of the administration’s misguided effort to win a temporary extension in the settlement freeze that few analysts believed had a chance of promoting serious negotiations. And there’s the image of what The New York Times called “three weeks of fruitless haggling” over the incentives package — hardly the stuff of strong international leadership.
Like most observers who care about peace in the troubled region, we await a fuller explanation about this week’s events and what comes next. But there are too many signs that this is just the latest in a series of foreign policy gaffes that call into question the competence of an administration that has already lost the trust of populations across the Middle East and which seems to be losing the trust of the American people, as well.