Pressing for Israel-PA Negotiations? Obama Sets Himself Up for Mideast Failure, Again

Last September, President Barack Obama -- with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas standing nearby -- said that there would be direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington by November 2009.

It didn’t happen.

The media didn’t ridicule the Obama administration or point to this failure. Too bad. That kind of behavior by the media plays a positive role -- in this case, teaching the president to be more circumspect and skeptical about rapid progress. Moreover, the president of the United States should never say that something is going to happen unless he knows that it will happen.

Now, in July 2010, the president is pressing for direct negotiations by the end of September: "And my hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium  [Israeli construction freeze that ends in September] has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success."

But is there any reason that this deadline will be met? No.

Israel is eager for direct talks; the PA keeps finding excuses for opposing them. Now it wants Israel to state its positions on borders and security measures before any talks can start. Yet what would happen if Israel did so? The PA would state that they are excessive, and thus refuse to enter direct talks.

True, the U.S. government is putting on some pressure to convince the PA to change its stance. Yet this limited pressure may well not be sufficient. The PA knows that the White House won’t go too far in this effort and will never publicly denounce the PA for its obduracy (whereas it would not hesitate -- as we have seen -- to criticize Israel).

Thus, the PA has ample reason to believe that if it does nothing, nothing will happen to it.

The PA strategy is to ensure that negotiations go nowhere and instead claim that it is building a state and then declare independence some time in the future. The great advantage of this approach is that the PA can try to get a state without compromise or concession to Israel. Moreover, by such methods, the PA can hope -- as has happened numerous times -- that Israel is blamed for the lack of progress and the U.S. government will pressure Israel.

These expectations may well be wrong -- no unilateral independence declaration might ever happen -- but they suit the needs of the PA leaders. They hope to avoid internal anger at concessions, closing their options for total victory in the future, and Western criticism or punishment.

The likelihood, then, is that Obama’s prediction might fail. Will the media remember that he went out once again on a limb and sawed it off?

Of course, just getting direct talks is no big deal -- they existed between 1992 and 2000! A Washington Post editorial states:

By reaffirming U.S. support for Israel and pressing for direct talks, Mr. Obama has created an opportunity to put both Palestinian leaders and Mr. Netanyahu to the test and to discover who is serious and who is not about a two-state settlement.

Yet we’ve been through this numerous times before. What happens when Netanyahu proves he is for a two-state solution and Abbas shows he is against it in practice? Will the West put heavy pressure on the PA? Will it swing to a strong pro-Israel policy?

Of course not. And that will help guarantee that no progress is made toward peace.