Ben Smith
September 27, 2010 - 12:00am

Israelis and Palestinians have yet to achieve any substantive progress in the nascent peace talks that resulted from President Barack Obama’s high-profile push for negotiations, but a subtle shift in the political balance between the two antagonists seems clear: Israel is now winning the blame game.

The blame game always proceeds on a parallel, subterranean track to actual negotiations, the cynical mirror of the process’s insistent optimism. Some prominent figures on both sides barely disguise their assumption that peace talks will fail, as they almost always do.

Even those who are committed to the prospect of peace and publicly optimistic about it are cautious enough to keep an eye on the possibility of failure, ready with a pointed finger if talks collapse so that the other side is left with what former Secretary of State James Baker once referred to as the “dead cat” of prospective blame.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “managed to leave the dead cat at the doorstep of both the Obama Administration and [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator who is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Last summer, Israel owned the dead cat. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made plain their view that Netanyahu’s failure to stop all settlement construction on the West Bank was the obstacle to resumed talks, and after an ill-timed construction announcement, Clinton’s office released details of the unusual 43-minute tongue-lashing she delivered to the Israeli.

Obama then brought Netanyahu and Abbas to the White House early this month with the exhortation to begin direct talks. Looming over the celebratory announcement that they would was the impending expiration of Israel’s moratorium on new settlement construction.

Now that the moratorium has expired, the Obama administration has completed a subtle tilt toward Israel’s point of view. The problem is no longer Israel’s actions: It’s the Palestinian insistence that one issue – settlements – be resolved before talks can begin.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now feeling some of the heat reserved last year for Netanyahu, and facing the prospect that if he fulfills his promise to withdraw from talks, he will bear the full blame for their collapse.

“The onus is on the Palestinians not to walk away. That’s not fair but it’s the way it is,” said Hussein Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which backs the talks. “There are people on both sides who have no confidence [in the peace process] and so the name of the game is who gets blamed. Which is why the Palestinian can say a million times that they’ll walk out — but they can’t.”

The shift is the subject of quiet self-congratulations among hawkish Israelis and their American allies. After the difficult start of his relationship with Obama and his humiliation at the hands of Clinton’s, Netanyahu sought to give Obama one thing he wanted: An absolute promise to being peace talks.

But he also refused to back down on the question of settlements, and he didn’t blink as they expired while the United Nations General Assembly was meeting in New York. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren reiterated in an interview with POLITICO that any construction would be “restrained, responsible, and limited,” a formula that falls far short of what both Obama and Abbas had, at times demanded.

Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill moved Monday to reinforce the assurance that Abbas would be blamed for any breakdown.

“Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started,” 87 members of the U.S. Senate wrote in a letter to Obama released Monday.

And some Palestinians appeared to greet the shift with something like resignation.

“We Palestinians have always unfairly been blamed for the breakdown in previous negotiations,” said Ambassador Maen Areikat, the chief of the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission to the U.S.

Areikat said he hopes, however, that the U.S. will be in a “better position to understand the situation” this time around because of the deep American involvement in talks.

Part of the blame game is the pretense that no such game exists, and officials on both sides said their sole focus is the talks themselves.

“It is not our mind that we want to avoid being blamed or not being blamed. What is of concern to us is to try to create the atmosphere conducive to real political discussions to put an end to the Israeli occupation,” said Areikat.

“No one’s taking any victory laps here –the victory is only if the talks continue,” said Oren.

But the Wilson Center’s Miller said the White House has profoundly shifted its orientation over the last year.

“The administration bought into the logic that the Palestinians shouldn’t insist” on the settlement issue, he said, and that “the only way to get an agreement was to return to the table.”

Embodying the Palestinians’ difficult position, Areikat avoided attaching any ultimatum to his side’s refusal to countenance Israeli construction.

“There is no way we can accept that Israel continues to settle the Palestinian territories that will become part of a Palestinian state in the future,” he said. “The moratorium itself was a middle ground. Now the Israelis are asking for another compromise on the compromise.”

Israel’s Oren said that the Palestinians had imperiled the talks with a tactical error.

“They’re like a football team that lets the clock run down to one second and then demands overtime,” he said. “They thought they would win some big diplomatic victory by running down the clock.”

But he said Israel had already made its sacrifices.

Netanyahu “paid a very heavy price for the moratorium, and it would nice if he had something to show for it,” Oren said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017