Today’s New York Times carries a useful guide to President Obama’s understanding of his own failures in the “Middle East Peace Process.” He blames the Palestinians a tiny bit, the Israelis a great deal, and himself not at all.
Here are the key paragraphs:
Publicly, Mr. Obama has said that both sides bear responsibility for the latest collapse. But the president believes that more than any other factor, Israel’s drumbeat of settlement announcements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem poisoned the atmosphere and doomed any chance of a breakthrough with the Palestinians.
“At every juncture, there was a settlement announcement,” said the [senior administration] official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It was the thing that kept throwing a wrench in the gears.”
There are a number of comments worth making about these remarks. First, note that the term “settlement” is used for construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Second, note that there is no reference to the 10-month settlement freeze Israel undertook in November 2009. For that decision Netanyahu paid a domestic political price but got nothing in return from the Palestinians–who did not come to the table until the tenth month, when they knew the freeze was ending–or from President Obama, who apparently has forgotten the whole thing.
Third, note that the reference is to a “drumbeat of settlement announcements” rather than actual construction. That’s because there is no big increase in settlement activity–in new construction or in confiscation of land for settlements. Government officials at various levels of responsibility in the municipal and national governments can and do make announcements, sometimes for political reasons.
A careful analysis would show that the administration’s accusation of vast increases in construction activity is wrong, but it seems there has been no such analysis done. Instead, the President and Martin Indyk make vague references to “rampant” activity and “large scale” land confiscation, offering no evidence for their charges. Surely they are sophisticated enough to know that such announcements are political acts, often meant to embarrass Netanyahu and often misleading as to whether additional, new construction is coming. And if they are sophisticated enough to know this, then their continuing insistence that Israel is to blame for the breakdown in talks is simply misleading and unfair. Because they know that according to the numbers there is no explosion of settlement activity; they know that when Israel did undertake a construction freeze, it did not bring the Palestinians to the table; they know that such a freeze has never been a precondition for talks before the Obama administration tried to make it so.
One thing missing in every account of the administration’s reaction to the breakdown of the talks, and it is introspection. Never do we read of any serious internal effort to assess what the President, or Kerry, or Indyk, may have gotten wrong. It seems easier to blame Israel and “settlement announcements.”