Yesterday I explained why official Israel isn't (and shouldn't be) thrilled about President Obama dropping his demand for a settlement freeze. What Obama really did, I said, is replace the technical annoyance of a freeze with a real headache – the drawing of the future Israel-Palestine border. A number of readers sent me questions and asked for clarifications, and I'm happy to share three of them with the rest of you:
1. You can't be serious: Obama doesn't mean it when he talks about borders and security. He only has to say something, but what he really wants to do is get the whole thing (Israel-Palestine) off his table. He has other better things to do.
Dear reader, you may be right and may be wrong. What we know is this: Obama will let his new Secretary of State John Kerry spend a considerable amount of time in Israel in the coming months. We also have reports about what his administration is officially saying:
"We're still at this 'let's see what's possible' stage," [State Department spokeswoman Victoria] Nuland said of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When Kerry meets Netanyahu and Abbas, she said he will "encourage them to be open, creative and build compromises, to increase confidence and create that environment so we can continue to help them."
So we have Kerry traveling to "see what's possible". This means that if three or six months down the road the administration will get to the conclusion that there's no possibility for a breakthrough, it might decide – as you suggested – to take the Israeli- Palestinian issue off the table and to focus on other matters. However, if the Secretary is spending time here, it means that he still hopes to come back to the President with a suggestion that can move the parties forward. What are the chances for each of the two scenarios? Read my answer to the next question.
2. Don't they know that there's a war in Syria and that Egypt is in a volatile condition?
Dear reader, rest assured that they do know that- and are very worried- both in Washington and in Jerusalem. I suppose what you mean to ask is: why spend time on the Palestinians when there are more pressing issues at hand? To this I can give one of four answers:
- Because the Obama administration still believes that solving the Palestinian issue is a possible key to stabilizing the region. No, they no longer believe that solving the Palestinian issue is the key (the magic bullet). But thinking about the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the region one doesn't have to subscribe to the binary perception of it having no impact or it being only thing that truly matters. So the Obama team might consider their work on this issue (and proving to the Arab world that they are serious about it) as an important component in a larger tool box of Middle East policies.
- Because this is one area in which they might have some way of making an impact. In other words: they look under the light post for the coin that they can find, rather than wasting time looking for coins in the dark.
- They don't really mean to spend a lot of time on this issue, just to make some noise, quiet down the critics, and move on to what they think is more important or more pressing.
- They think they can handle everything at once.
What I can say this: with all the many things currently going on in the region (not to mention other regions in the world), I think it's unlikely that the Obama administration will have a lot of time and energy to spend on Israel and Palestine. Thinking about Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon – and about the many horror scenarios that might materialize in the coming weeks months and years – one should be skeptical about the possibility that Kerry will be able to do Israel-Palestine peace negotiations uninterrupted by events that will overshadow his efforts and push them aside.
3. Why can't you give Obama a pass after such a successful visit?
Dear reader, I'm afraid you got the wrong impression if you think my article was a condemnation of the Obama visit. It wasn't, but since you're not the only reader sending me a note of such nature, I should better clarify my position:
The Obama visit was a great success, and the President was very well prepared for it.
The Obama policy and Israel's policy are still at odds on many issues: that's no tragedy and, in fact, is to be expected.
On the Palestinian issue – that's my article from yesterday – the Obama administration is toying with the idea of starting with borders, that is, with a map.
For Israel, starting with a map is a non-starter, for the reasons I specified, both inherent and political.
In this case, I think the Israeli position is more sensible. In other words: If Obama gets to a point in which he pressures Israel to present a map it would be a mistake.
Should I "give him a pass" by saying that the 'border-security agenda' for talks is the right one to go for even though I think it's not? I'm sure this was not your intention. As I explained, it would be difficult for Israel to present a map and lose its only negotiation card. So opting for such sequence in the first round of negotiations can hardly be fruitful. The map presented would have to be one that the Palestinians could not swallow, and the whole process would quickly spiral back into crisis. Looking for confidence-building measures and small interim steps is the more realistic route; going for the big prize- a final status agreement – is more coherent on paper than in practice. What the Obama administration is now considering seems like a problematic idea. It is likely, though, to be abandoned during the search for "what's possible" (see answer to question number 1).