Last week, the dean of Israeli newspaper columnists, Nahum Barnea, reported that senior American officials are placing almost all the blame for the collapse of the Middle East peace process on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barnea quotes one unnamed official who argues that the Netanyahu government’s settlement policy fatally undermined the John Kerry-led negotiations. “What they told me is the closest thing to an official American version of what happened,” Barnea wrote.
Well, that was last week. This week, perhaps in reaction to the reaction to Barnea’s article, American officials I spoke to were careful to apportion blame in a way that was slightly more evenhanded (to borrow a loaded term from the annals of American peacemaking). There is no doubt that the underlying message is the same: The Netanyahu government’s settlement program, in the officials' view, is the original sin committed in the nine-month process (the original sin of the Middle East conflict is located elsewhere). But officials I spoke to said that they are peeved -- a word one of them actually used -- at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for, in essence, checking out of the peace process as early as February.
One key moment in this drama came in March, when Abbas, at his own request, met U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House and heard Obama present a set of fairly dramatic American-inspired proposals (some of which had to do, apparently, with the future borders of the Palestinian state). Obama told Abbas in a direct way that he would be awaiting his response to the proposals. “I want you to get back to me soon,” Obama said, according to officials. But a response never came. American officials I spoke to likened Abbas’s lack of response to the decision made 14 years ago by Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, to leave the Camp David peace talks without even countering an Israeli proposal for Palestinian statehood.
Abbas angered American officials twice more in the late stages of the current peace process. First when he announced a decision to seek membership in 15 international conventions. And again when -- to the surprise of the U.S. -- he announced a reconciliation between his Fatah movement, which rules the West Bank, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas movement in Gaza. U.S. officials told me that while Netanyahu failed the test of seriousness at various moments in the process, Abbas is guilty of the same crime.
Nevertheless, American officials have been sympathetic to Abbas’s underlying predicament. Barnea, in his article, quotes one American official as saying, “The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We're talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale.”
The current peace process finds itself in a ditch in large part because the two leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, can’t abide each other. According to officials, Abbas sometimes refers to Netanyahu as “that man,” and Netanyahu, borrowing an expression he learned from Vice President Joe Biden, has told American negotiators that he’s “not going to nail himself to a cross” on behalf of Abbas, who he believes is uninterested in and incapable of reaching a final deal.
One observation I was surprised to hear from Obama administration officials these past couple of days concerns Netanyahu’s own willingness to continue down the Kerry-designed negotiations path. Despite his reputation, they said, they’re convinced Netanyahu is gripped by a sense that time is not on Israel’s side. If Israel does not find a way to end the occupation of most of the West Bank, its democracy will be imperiled. This understanding is one not shared by some members of Netanyahu's own governing coalition, and American officials have privately expressed sympathy for his political predicament.
So why are American officials telling me this now? In part because I happened to ask for an update. But mainly because they fear that Netanyahu, who is given to deep suspicion about the Obama administration’s motives, will be tipped over the edge by reports like those from Barnea, and statements by the likes of Kerry that Israel is in danger of becoming an apartheid state. From the administration’s perspective, the peace process is not dead yet. Kerry, who is almost pathologically optimistic, has likened the current breakdown to a water break in a marathon. Obama is said to be more pessimistic than Kerry, but even he, I’m told, has not given up entirely.
Right now, it’s hard to see a way forward. Abbas will only come back to negotiations if Israel imposes a three-month freeze on settlement construction, something that Netanyahu almost surely will not give him. Even more than that, Abbas wants to see a map of what his state will look like. The Israelis, people in Jerusalem tell me, are loath to offer a map so early in negotiations, because it would represent an enormous concession.
What is needed now, more than continued American leadership, is a pair of leaders who are willing to risk their political survival for the peace process. That is what U.S. officials believe we don’t currently have.
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