Remember when Barack Obama promised “smart power” in American diplomacy? The series of gaffes abroad has finally caught the attention of the Washington Post, which looks at one particular effort: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While even the most adept diplomatic efforts have failed to move the needle much on this conflict, Glenn Kessler reports that the Obama administration effort was so clueless that it resulted in making the situation much worse than when they started:
President Obama came into office insisting that his administration would press hard and fast to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after nine months, analysts and diplomats say, the administration’s efforts have faltered in part because of its own missteps.
As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear during her Middle East trip, which ended Wednesday, U.S. officials are now promoting new tactics — what they called the “baby steps” of lower-level talks — to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for direct talks.
But the dynamics have changed since Obama named a special envoy to the region on his second day in office and tried to make a fresh start. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom the administration once would have been happy to see undermined, has been strengthened — while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the administration had hoped to bolster, has been weakened.
“There was an excess of zeal at first,” said Edward S. Walker Jr., who was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton administration. “It is a noble endeavor to try to hammer out peace. But you have to look at the relationships. You have to read the players. They got out in front of studying the problem and were anxious to show progress.”
Daniel Levy, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator now at the Century Foundation in Washington, summed up the administration’s efforts in recent days as “amateur night at the Apollo Theater.” He said the administration did not game out the consequences of its demands on the parties — and then flinched. “They just dug deeper and deeper their own grave,” he said. “All of this talk of negotiations doesn’t cut the mustard in the region.”
The biggest fumble in this endeavor came on settlements. The Israelis had a verbal agreement with the US, which it had arguably not met, according to Bush administration negotiator Eliot Abrams, who participated in crafting it. Instead of simply making the agreement public and demanding compliance, the Obama administration repudiated it instead to build its credibility as a disinterested mediator in the conflict. That was all Mahmoud Abbas needed to hear. Instead of making him easier to deal with, Abbas demanded a complete freeze on all settlement activity as a prerequisite for talks rather than a point for the negotiations.
Abbas’ demand hardened Israeli opinion on both the talks and on Obama. Instead of weakening Netanyahu, which was the obvious thrust of the White House’s diplomatic efforts, they made Bibi more popular. That was an entirely foreseeable consequence, too. Israel put Netanyahu in charge in reaction to the unrelenting war in Gaza and the failure of earlier concessions with Abbas to gain any sense of peace or security. Making Abbas even more of an absolutist gave Israelis a reason to back Bibi.
Many an American President has found himself humbled by the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. However, none has done so much in such a short period of time to humble himself as Barack Obama, and even the Post has noticed it. And they don’t even get to “reset buttons,” multiparty democracy, Zelaya, or the missile defense Hokey Pokey.