Richard Cohen
September 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Every so often, the sayings of Casey Stengel come to mind. The longtime manager of the New York Yankees, accustomed to a Prussian professionalism in the hitting and fielding of baseballs, moved over to the astonishingly hapless New York Mets in 1962 and, surveying his new team, uttered an exasperated question: "Can't anybody here play this game?" What applied to those Mets applies now to the Obama administration. In the Middle East, it's no hits and plenty of errors.

The arena of the administration's incompetence is the issue of West Bank settlements. This is something of a misnomer since while some settlements are recklessly deep into the West Bank -- Ariel, for instance -- others are indistinguishable parts of Jerusalem. They are all, under international law, illegal. But some, regardless of legality, are going to stay. Even in the Middle East, common sense can play a role. The Jerusalem-area settlements are not going to be abandoned by Israel.

The settlements issue is complicated but not unsolvable. What it is, though, is of enormous symbolic value. Settlements are how Zionists settled Israel -- and the Israel that mattered most to some nationalists and Orthodox Jews is not that Miami manqué on the coast, Tel Aviv, but the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria, the heart of biblical Israel. For a significant number of Israelis, but hardly a majority, settlements have enormous religious and ideological importance. This is not just about 2 rms w/view.

As for the average Palestinian, settlements are a poke in the eye. The construction of each one means yet another piece of his land has gone over to the enemy and cannot be a part of a Palestinian state. It is an in-your-face reminder of impotency, of the inability to control life or fate -- and of a baleful history that has seen nothing but defeat. Palestinians would like to win one for a change.

Given the highly emotional nature of the settlement issue, it made no sense for the administration -- actually, President Obama himself -- to promote an absolute moratorium on construction as the prerequisite for peace talks. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu complied, under extreme pressure, but only to a 10-month moratorium. For Netanyahu, this was a major concession. He heads a right-wing coalition that takes settlements very seriously. Netanyahu had a choice: accede to Obama's terms and have his government collapse, or end the moratorium. On Sunday, with the 10 months up, he chose the latter.

We will see if the end of the moratorium means the end of peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not -- or not yet -- ended negotiations. He's going to confer with his fellow Arab leaders. In the meantime, Obama ought to confer with someone who knows the region -- and listen to him or her. Trouble is, many experts have told him that his emphasis on settlements was the wrong way to go. As late as last week and the succession of meetings held at the United Nations, it was clear that Netanyahu would not ask his Cabinet to extend the settlement freeze. Yet not only did the White House reject this warning, the president repeated his call for a freeze. "Our position on this issue is well-known," Obama told the U.N. General Assembly. "We believe that the moratorium should be extended." Well, it wasn't.

From the very start, the president has taken a very hard line against settlements, refusing to distinguish between an apartment in Jerusalem and a hilltop encampment deep in the West Bank. He also seems not to understand their religious, cultural or historical importance to some Jews. Certain right-wing Israelis have reacted with the same lack of empathy. One settlements leader, Gershon Mesika, called Obama by his middle name, Hussein -- a juvenile attempt at an insult.

The Obama approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been counterproductive. Either the Palestinians have to back down from their -- even more importantly, Obama's -- insistence that all settlements be frozen in place or Netanyahu has to back down from his pledge that any moratorium would be temporary. Either Abbas or Netanyahu has to lose credibility and neither man can afford to. They are not mere negotiators; they are heads of government.

Obama, too, has to husband his credibility. He

foolishly demanded something Israel could not yet give. It was bad diplomacy, recalling neither Metternich nor Kissinger but the ol' professor and his question about the inept Mets. The answer, so far, is no.


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