Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Obama-Clinton-Mitchell Peace Talks are Over

The Obama administration officially gave up on its pursuit to seduce Israel to halt settlements in order to continue the most recent round of stalled peace talk earlier today. The New York Times of course tells its readers that talks between Israel and the Palestinians are "in limbo" when in reality the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell team has simply allowed the curtain to close on yet another long, boring, and useless act of the Israel-Palestine peace process.

"Don't look at me, it's not my fault!"
The State Department (unnamed sources of course) explained that the decision was made based on the fact that, despite the Obama administration's package of bribes intended to sway Netanyahu and his cabinet into extending the settlement "freeze", Bibi has been unable (or unwilling) to sway his cabinet to back the extension. Furthermore, the State sources interviewed by the Times actually got a bit candid and explained that American negotiators do not actually have any confidence that the Israelis and Palestinians will be able to come to an agreement on "core issues" in 90 days before the need would once again arise to sign another blank check over to Israel for the pleasure of sitting with both sides at the same table.

Although the article does refer to "issues" in the plural, State previously indicated that the goal of the 90-day extension was to get an agreement on borders (not including Jerusalem) so that continuous negotiations over settlements so that negotiations over peace could continue would not be needed. Most knowledgeable observers were surprised that, given the lack of progress so far in this round of talks, the Obama administration seriously believed borders could be sufficiently worked out in a mere 90 days. The formal end of Obama's first try at Israel/Palestine peacemaking and his inability to achieve any progress comes at no surprise. Although the Cairo Speech and the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell was cause for some initial hope, three things became immediately clear: 1.) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was not willing to propose a solution that went further to address Palestinian desires than the meek 2000 Camp David offer because his vision of a Palestinian state included so many conditions on sovereignty and statehood that it made a complete mockery to even refer to what he had in mind for the Palestinians as a "state"; 2.) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, ruling by decree as his term expired nearly two years ago, did not have the political capital or domestic support to continue negotiating without receiving solid improvements on the ground with regard to West Bank closures, settlement expansion, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip; and 3.) President Obama's team, including veteran peacemaker George Mitchell, lacked a clear vision for both how negotiations should go and the outcome of such negotiations. The President's vision for peacemaking involved nothing more than repeating the "two states for two peoples" mantra and asking Israel very politely if they could hold off just a bit on the continued expansion of settlements (though they did not much seem to mind about East Jerusalem settlement expansion).

So what do we call Obama's first Israel/Palestine peace process? Clinton had Camp David and G.W. Bush had Annapolis, but there's no clear consensus on what to call Obama's first (and perhaps last) failed attempt at peace. Should we call it the Mitchell talks, and tarnish the man's good peacemaking name? The talks never really got a good geographic location, so naming it after that is out of the question. In the absence of any other suggestions I submit that we simply call it the Obama peace process. He started it with his appointment of Mitchell and his Cairo speech to "restart" relations with the Muslim world and he ended it with his huge and disgraceful bribe to Israel in an attempted exchange for a paltry 90 days of partial settlement freeze in the West Bank. Obama certainly had plenty else to do, both domestically and in foreign policy, aside from sticking his neck out for the elusive Israel/Palestine peace, but I think if you decide to make a run at the peace process, you have to either make time to really become involved in what's going on, or you have to appoint someone with enough clout and fortitude to knock some heads together and get things done. My opinion is that he initially decided to get involved and put his best foot forward, appointing Mitchell to be his man on the ground, but soon lost interest when it proved that just getting the two parties to talk would be a major headache. After a few months he basically left Mitchell out to dry while Obama became preoccupied with other matters. When the whole process nearly fell apart, he paid lip service to getting things back up and running and told Secretary of State Clinton to become more involved. Of course in the end, none of it mattered because neither Clinton, Mitchell, (and perhaps even Obama) had to guts, political capital, or diplomatic tools to get mean with the Palestinians or Israelis when they held things up and push everyone back on track. Mistakes were made, Netanyahu and Abbas acted petulantly as expected, but this process was Obama's baby and the failure lies predominantly on his shoulders, so I'm henceforth calling this the Obama peace process. The moral here is simple: don't start a peace process in the Holy Land if you don't actually have the time, tools, and vision to see it through to a final agreement.

Tomorrow on the blog I'll answer two other big questions that always accompany a peace talk failure: Who is to blame? and What's next? Don't miss out!

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