Editorial: Back Off to Get Back On


In both the short term and the long run, the decision by the Obama administration to drop its efforts to gain an agreement from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for another 90-day freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, was a wise and necessary step to put the efforts toward a two-state solution on a more realistic path.

Ethan Bonner, in an analysis piece in last week’s New York Times, said it was “concerns about day 91 (which) ended the push for an Israeli 90-day freeze.” Taking note of the fact that “few analysts applauded” when the U.S. pushed for the 90-day partial, one-time Israeli settlement construction freeze, Bonner points out, “Instead, they asked: Would pro-settler Israeli Cabinet ministers accede to another freeze? Would the Palestinians accept a freeze that did not include East Jerusalem? And beyond that, how could the two sides solve enough in 90 days to prevent the talks from collapsing and, in the worst case, setting off violence?” In view of these questions, Bonner notes, the Obama administration decided that the “wisest course was to step back and start over.”

Bonner’s observations are exactly on point. Recently, Kenneth Jacobson, Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and a highly regarded expert on Israel and the Middle East, was in St. Louis. Jacobson said that it was a mistake for the Obama administration to focus on the issue of Jewish settlement construction, since the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been negotiating with the Netanyahu government despite continued settlement building before Obama’s Cairo speech which made an issue of the settlements. Abbas after that point could politically no longer afford to seem “softer” on the settlements issue than the United States. As for Netanyahu, the very makeup of his ruling coalition, which includes hardliners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, made it impossible for him to seek settlement freezes, which would threaten to bring down his government.

Additionally, the U.S. was offering Israel some very generous items in exchange for the 90-day freeze, including the virtual gift of 20 advanced jet fighters in addition to the 20 Israel had agreed to purchase and assurances that the U.S. would block a Palestinian “end-run” to gain recognition as an independent state within the 1967 borders at the United Nations Security Council. Israel insisted that those assurances be put in writing to prevent them from becoming “inoperative,” as occurred with assurances given Israel during the George W. Bush administration which were later abrogated.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not miss a beat in expressing the continued and even stronger determination of the Obama administration to achieve a two-state solution within the original 2011 deadline set months before. In remarks after the new U.S. policy to drop the settlement freeze effort was announced, Clinton made it clear that an all-out effort will be made to achieve agreement on such thorny but essential issues as final borders, shared administration of East Jerusalem, the future of Palestinian refugees and recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish State.

By “de-coupling” U.S. policy from the intractable (for now) settlement construction issue, the Obama administration has removed a continuously re-emerging obstacle from real progress towards peace.

Over the weekend, on the ABC-TV program “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,” Israeli centrist Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad each made it clear that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution. For his part, Fayyad indicated that his government was prepared to continue diplomatic efforts with the assistance of Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell toward that goal. Livni said that her party was prepared to join a pro-peace coalition to help the Netanyahu government achieve the needed majority to approve the terms of a two-state deal.

As we approach 2011, the fresh U.S. approach to the goal of a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is a very welcome development toward achieving our prayer for peace.