Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in Politico - November 2, 2009 - 1:00am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's message on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this weekend was not notably different from what President Barack Obama himself said in New York in September at a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But the prevailing perception and coverage in the wake of Clinton's meetings in Israel and Abu Dhabi Saturday are that the U.S. has once again returned to its traditional default position of tolerating Israeli unwillingness to abide by demands for a total settlement freeze and once again decided that the way forward is to pressure the Palestinians to cave.

While U.S. officials on Sunday pushed back forcefully on the veracity of that impression, news headlines have been uniformly grim in the region since Clinton appeared at a news conference in Jerusalem with a confident-looking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the late-night news conference, Clinton said that Netanyahu's offer to agree to a partial settlement moratorium in advance of actually entering negotiations with the Palestinians would be an "unprecedented" step.

In fact, U.S. negotiators have been privately saying the same thing for the past few weeks — that an agreement they had reached with Netanyahu for a nine-month moratorium on new settlement construction or further land expropriations before entering negotiations was far reaching and unprecedented, if not the full freeze they had been pushing for months to achieve.

"What the prime minister [Netanyahu] has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements — no new starts, for example – is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations," Clinton said at the news conference with Netanyahu. "I think that where we are right now is to try to get into the negotiations."

"There are always demands made in any negotiation that are not going to be fully realized," Clinton continued, to make the point that the starting position of talks would not be the final outcome of negotiations. "I mean, negotiation, by its very definition, is a process of trying to meet the other’s needs while protecting your core interests. And on settlements, there’s never been a precondition, there’s never been such an offer from any Israeli government. And we hope that we’ll be able to move in to the negotiations, where all the issues that President Obama mentioned in his speech at the United Nations will be on the table for the parties to begin to resolve."

As Clinton prepares to meet with Arab foreign ministers in Marrakesh Monday night, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom she met in Abu Dhabi before flying to Jerusalem, looks weaker than ever going into the elections he has called to be held in January. U.S. officials say Clinton will urge Arab leaders with whom she is meeting to support Abu Mazen, as he is known, saying he is the only viable option for achieving the creation of a Palestinian state.

But Abbas told Clinton at their meeting that he has been badly hurt by what appears to be a U.S. flip-flop on the settlements freeze issue as well as an earlier decision he made apparently in consultation with moderate Arab regimes as well as Washington to refrain from demanding further United Nations action on a recent report by a commission headed by Richard Goldstone that investigated possible war crimes committed in Israel's Gaza campaign earlier this year — a position he later reversed when it came under tremendous criticism in the Arab and Palestinian world.

"I fear her trip to Israel may be the final nail" in the coffin for the Obama administration's efforts to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, one Washington Middle East hand said on condition of anonymity Sunday.

Clinton "went beyond Obama's talking points in New York City," he said. "She took sides on settlements" and appeared to "'praise' Israel and Bibi."

While saying he is a friend and admirer of the Obama foreign policy team, the source said, "I think [they are] in over their head and there is no strong, capable person navigating this ship. It all seems unprofessional, a policy drifting in different directions, thus projecting weakness to a savvy and cynical region that studies and looks for signs of strength and weakness. Very dangerous and full of implications for Iran and Af-Pak policy."

U.S. officials traveling with Clinton in the Middle East pushed back hard on that interpretation of what is going on, even while acknowledging that perceptions can be an important factor, even if counterfactual.
"The punch line is, [Clinton] is trying to help everyone focus on the longer term," one senior State Department official told POLITICO. "She said multiple times this week, 'Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good.' ... All we are arguing is about the timeline to get to where they want to go.

"If you follow the logic of a moratorium freeze, if it is a matter of only allowing those units already under construction to be finished, the moratorium eventually gets you to a freeze," he continued. "Then the only question is if are you better off entering into negotiations [sooner] or waiting. There is no value in waiting," he said was Clinton's message to the Palestinians.

But the impression that the Obama administration now sides with Israel in asking the Palestinians to enter into talks with something less than a settlement freeze to test whether Netanyahu's offer is genuine contributes to Abbas's perceived weakness.

"What Abu Mazen said to the secretary was, 'Hey, I made a decision to push off the Goldstone report. No one objected when I first did it, but [then] everyone started turning on me,'" one U.S. official said on condition of anonymity Sunday. "When public opinion rose up against the deferral, Abbas's point to the secretary was, 'If they won’t support me on the decision regarding the [Goldstone] report, are they going to support me when I have to make a much tougher decision to enter negotiations'" with the Israelis before there is a settlement freeze?’ Which is a fair point.

"That is why [Clinton's meetings] tomorrow [with Arab foreign ministers] is important in terms of sending the unequivocal message: 'You have got to support Abu Mazen,'" the U.S. official continued. "'And your best option is to get into negotiations sooner than later where [Abbas] can in fact gain leverage and test Netanyahu.'" In other words, to test whether Netanyahu is willing to risk his own political coalition to undertake the partial settlement moratorium he publicly agreed to with Clinton last night.

One Palestinian-American activist said he wasn't feeling hopeless yet. "It was only a few days ago that Obama said solving this is 'absolutely crucial' to U.S. national interests," the American Task Force for Palestine's Hussein Ibish said in an e-mail. "It would be a pretty quick change of mind if they were to give up now. And two more things: I have long argued that Obama himself always saw this as a marathon, which is why he began on Day One. Also, [Middle East peace envoy George] Mitchell's approach in Ireland was to exhaust the stonewalling from all sides by not giving up or going away. Anyway, we shall see."

And another Washington Middle East hand said the Obama administration had no choice but to start backing itself out of its own corner in the form of a drawn-out fight with the Netanyahu government on a full settlement freeze to try to get to the main event. "It was the policy of the early months of the Obama administration that boxed in Abu Mazen," said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's David Makovsky, co-author with the National Security Council's Dennis Ross of a new book, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace."

"Once the U.S. said 'freeze,' it raised Arab expectations to such a point that Abu Mazen could not agree to less. He cannot be more of a Zionist than the U.S. There have been consequences for the early approach. If the Obama administration would have said no geographic expansion of settlements from the outset instead of saying freeze, we would not have lost eight months of time and wasted the political capital of the president. President Obama would not have been at single digits in Israeli polls, and Abu Mazen would not have been out on the limb. Critically, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would have most likely already commenced.

"Now the dynamic will be driven by whether there is a Palestinian election or not," Makovsky continued. "A law of Mideast peacemaking is that compromises do not occur during a Palestinian or Israeli election campaign. If Abu Mazen heads for elections, he will find it convenient not to budge so he can flex his nationalist muscles. If this is his intention, Obama administration peacemaking will be on hold until the Palestinian elections end in early 2010."


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