Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler called it a “triumph of hope over experience,” but experienced Middle East hands are wondering if the Obama administration might have a trick or two up its sleeve as it appears on the verge of winning a 90-day, non-renewable settlement construction moratorium in return for a glittery package of incentives to Israel.
“It’s a desperate strategy the administration is pursuing,” said Robert O. Freedman, a Middle East scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “If this works to get the parties back to the negotiating table, it’s a short-term victory, but it’s hard to see where it goes from there.”
Even limited agreements on borders and security, he said, will be extremely difficult to hammer out, especially because of the knotty issues of Jerusalem and settlements like Ariel, which the Palestinians see as major roadblocks on the road to statehood.
So far the administration has been tight-lipped about its plans, and analysts profess confusion about whether the lucrative package of incentives — which includes additional F-35 fighters and an unprecedented exemption of eastern Jerusalem from the freeze — conceals the threat of a much more aggressive U.S. approach if new negotiations do not produce quick results.
“To be honest, this seems so ridiculous on the surface that there almost has to be something else behind it,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist who asked not to be named. “I don’t think anybody in the administration is naive enough to believe that getting everybody back to the table is going to produce real progress unless they have some game changer waiting in the wings. It may be that implicit in this offer is the threat to stop doing the things they’ve promised — like taking more aggressive action against Palestinian efforts at the UN — if Israel doesn’t go along with their plans.”
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of an unusually turbulent U.S. political environment, with a badly weakened president looking anxiously at his 2012 re-election plans.
“There are certain calendar realities here — starting with the fact we are about to enter the third year of President Obama’s term,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and head of a new inter-agency task force to fight delegitimization efforts aimed at the Jewish state. “The conventional wisdom is that it is very difficult to push through foreign policy initiatives in the year leading up to a presidential election. If you want to move on the Middle East conflict, the third year of your term is the likeliest time to do it.”
Other observers say an administration with few foreign policy successes to its name, major political woes at home and no good ideas for breaking the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate may be simply trying to bribe its way to a limited diplomatic success.
“As far as I can see they are simply trying to buy a deal,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “The problem is, once you start paying, you pay forever. And if you do that, you’d better have a lot more chips.”
At midweek, the Israeli cabinet was still discussing an incentives package that some observers say may be hard to turn down. The offer includes 20 F-35 joint-strike fighters in addition to the 20 Israel has already agreed to purchase, an offer that would add greatly to Israel’s military supremacy in the region.
Washington also reportedly agreed not to ask for additional settlement freezes after the 90-day period is up — and to exempt construction in eastern Jerusalem from the moratorium, a dramatic acknowledgment of the power of the Jerusalem issue to disrupt U.S. efforts in the region.
Washington also promised to aggressively fight anti-Israel moves at the UN, including efforts to win international approval for a unilateral statehood declaration, a persistent threat by a Palestinian leadership that has balked at direct negotiations with Israel.
While critics say much of the package reflects current policy, the offer left most Middle East analysts here scratching their heads.
“It’s strange, and it’s a very high price to pay for simply resuming negotiations,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a State Department veteran. “It’s especially strange because there isn’t time for any comprehensive breakthrough.”
The current U.S. plan, according to numerous press reports, is to use the three-month period to press for some preliminary agreement on borders — the area in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations where the rough outlines of an eventual agreement have been known for years — and border security.
Walker said that despite the high price Washington seems willing to pay and the limited chances for success, “it’s probably worth it — because the alternative is nothing, which means a rapid descent into violence. No movement just benefits Hamas.”
And then there’s Jerusalem, the issue with the greatest potential to throw negotiations into disarray, and the West Bank settlement of Ariel, which Johns Hopkins scholar Robert O. Freedman called “a big bone in the throat of the Palestinians because it cuts their proposed state in half. How they deal with that in 90 days will be very interesting.”
Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official who worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for several presidents, said, “The real question here is what other agreements have been reached in private between the administration and Netanyahu. That’s the missing link; that’s what we don’t know.”
Miller predicted the administration will “allow the two sides to work together for a decent interval” on questions of borders and security. “Then I believe they will do what I would do: confront both sides, in private conversations, with the kind of bridging proposals that will be required on all components of a border security deal.”
At the same time, the administration will be casting about for “some way to finesse the issue of Jerusalem — which will be very difficult,” he said. “But it will be hard to define borders without any discussion of Jerusalem.”
The administration’s decision to exempt eastern Jerusalem from the new freeze will make it more difficult for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept any compromise on Jerusalem, Miller said.
“All of this — paying Israel and the Palestinians just to get back to the table — is problematic,” he said. “And it reflects that neither side really owns the negotiations. But the alternatives — to do nothing and just walk away, or to present a full-blown American plan, are also unacceptable.”