Israel’s decision to accelerate settlement construction in response to the brutal murders of a settler family in Itamar over the weekend might have ignited a sharp reaction from Washington—if the Obama administration had any hopes of moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward.
But with the administration’s Middle East policy in disarray and the overwhelming pressure of a staggering array of new world crises, the response has been muted — another indicator, some analysts say, of the administration’s unannounced withdrawal from active involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
“They have their hands full with so many other things they’re struggling with, I just don’t see this administration responding much at all, other than restating the position that settlements are unhelpful,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv.
And that points to the possibility “this administration has absolutely no game plan for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and not much interest in pressing the issue now” he said.
In the wake of the Itamar murders, pro-Israel groups this week were zeroing in on the issue of the Palestinian Authority’s ambivalent — at best — response to virulent anti-Israel incitement, and arguing that such incitement created conditions in which such atrocities will become increasingly likely. They also criticized this administration’s — and its predecessor’s — anemic efforts to pressure Palestinian authorities to tamp down incitement.
But a veteran U.S. peace negotiator said that’s easier said than done.
“The failure lies not with the administration — as if it is possible to purge the anger and hatred out of the hearts and minds of the Palestinians,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official now with the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “I was part of these discussions, and it was mission impossible from the beginning. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t press the Palestinians, but the notion we can have a big impact is far-fetched.”
On Monday, responding to the announcement that the Netanyahu government approved 500 new housing units in West Bank communities in the wake of the vicious attack in Itamar, a State Department spokesperson said, “The United States is deeply concerned by continuing Israeli actions with respect to settlements in the West Bank. Continued Israeli settlements are illegitimate and run counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations.”
But the response was without heat, and there were no indications administration concerns would add to U.S.-Israel tensions.
The biggest reasons appear to be the distraction of a wide range of other international crises, and the sense in Washington that the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate is unlikely to be broken.
The Itamar killings, the possibility they could be harbingers of a new wave of terrorism and Israeli retaliation, and the always explosive issue of Israeli construction in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank were lost in what has become a crisis-filled month for the administration, said the Wilson Center’s Miller.
“At any other time, these events would have resulted in a serious situation,” he said. “There would have been concern about a possible crackdown by the Israeli government, possible vengeance attacks by settlers.”
But events on the Israeli-Palestinian front have been eclipsed by a world in ferment, he said. As the administration grapples with the failing revolution in Libya, questions about whether Egypt’s move toward democracy will be derailed, unrest in Bahrain and Saudi intervention in that country, and indications that protests may be spreading in Saudi Arabia have preoccupied administration foreign policy officials.
Compounding disasters in Japan and the possibility that its nuclear catastrophe may jeopardize the economic recovery here have further dimmed the importance of Middle East peacemaking, at least for now.
“These are real crises, in real time, and the administration has to react,” Miller said. “It reduces the more traditional conflicts to a much different scale; it’s sucked up all the emotional and political energy out of traditional foreign policy issues, and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
One result: the relatively mild, almost disinterested response of the Obama administration to the latest settlement announcement from Jerusalem.
While the Israeli press has focused attention on the expectation that Netanyahu will offer a major Middle East initiative in a speech later this spring, possibly to a joint meeting of Congress or to the AIPAC policy conference, there is little expectation in Washington that he will offer any breakthrough proposals — and little interest in pressing him to do so.
Most major pro-Israel groups, echoing statements by the Netanyahu government, are focusing mostly on the issue of Palestinian incitement.
“Day in and day out, the Palestinian Authority’s official media —television, radio and newspaper [al-Hayat al-Jadida] — incite violence against Israel, glorify terrorists and teach Palestinians that Israel has no right to exist and should be wiped off the map,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel.
In the case of last week’s brutal killings, “there was an especially pointed example: the approval shown recently for a past attack in Itamar.
“In short, what we can see is a showy but routine denunciation of terrorism in English for the international audience coupled with encouragement to commit terrorism in Arabic to the Palestinian audience. It is easy to demonstrate that this is the actual situation. Yet the Western news media almost totally ignore this issue.”
While there is widespread agreement in pro-Israel circles that this and past administrations have not done enough to counter widespread incitement in PA-sanctioned or controlled media and textbooks, it is far from clear that Washington has the leverage to convince Palestinian leaders to seriously crack down on incitement.
And some critics argue that Netanyahu is using the incitement issue to deflect attention from his ongoing efforts to appease his right flank.
“Netanyahu is aware that he is losing support domestically and internationally,” said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977” (Macmillan). “He wants to turn the focus from Israeli actions to Palestinian actions.”
The Itamar attack “played into his hands, as he judged matters,” Gorenberg said. “He quickly rushed to blame Palestinian incitement for the attack — ignoring the major effort that the PA has in fact made to stop terror. Those charges were fairly obvious as cynical exploitation of the attack.”
But Gorenberg argued that Netanyahu then “undercut his strategy by approving new settlement building. He seems either not to understand the damage that settlement does to Israel’s international position and the degree to which settlement is seen by the Palestinians as a direct assault on them — or he would prefer to pretend that he does not understand. In either case, the decision is damaging even in terms of Netanyahu’s own efforts of recent weeks to switch the focus of attention to Palestinian actions.”
But in Washington, signs of that damage are hard to detect as the Obama administration wrestles with a tangle of new and daunting international crises that have reduced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a mere footnote.