Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Post: How Obama sabotaged Middle East peace talks

Jackson Diehl, Washington Post October 19 For 15 years and more, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conducted peace talks with Israel in the absence of a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Now, it appears as likely as not that his newborn negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- and their goal of agreement on a Palestinian state within a year -- will die because of Abbas's refusal to continue without such a freeze. The Palestinian president's stand has frustrated a lot of people -- including his own prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, and the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, both of whom have said that the settlement issue should not be an obstacle to the negotiations. At a recent dinner in Washington, Fayyad pointed out that any building in the settlements during the next year would have no effect on the outcome of the talks or the future Palestinian state. So why does Abbas stubbornly persist in his self-defeating position? In an interview with Israeli television Sunday night, he offered a remarkably candid explanation: "When Obama came to power, he is the one who announced that settlement activity must be stopped," he said. "If America says it and Europe says it and the whole world says it, you want me not to say it?" The statement confirmed something that many Mideast watchers have suspected for a long time: that the settlement impasse originated not with Netanyahu or Abbas, but with Obama -- who by insisting on an Israeli freeze has created a near-insuperable obstacle to the peace process he is trying to promote. A standoff between Obama and Netanyahu over settlements paralyzed Middle East diplomacy for more than a year, while Abbas happily watched from the sidelines. Netanyahu finally announced a 10-month, partial moratorium on new settlement construction. In July, following a meeting at the White House, it looked like the U.S. and Israeli leaders had overcome their differences. Obama said nothing about settlements afterward, and instead urged Abbas to begin direct talks with Netanyahu. Yet to the surprise of both Netanyahu and some in his own administration, Obama reintroduced the settlement issue. First in a press conference and then in his September address to the UN General Assembly, he called on the Israeli government to extend the settlement moratorium, which expired on Sept. 26. In doing so, he made it impossible for Abbas not to make the same demand. In his television interview, Abbas said that Netanyahu had told him that he could not extend the settlement moratorium without causing his right-wing government to collapse. So both leaders are trapped. Netanyahu is a hostage to his cabinet; and Abbas is the prisoner of Obama's misguided rhetoric.

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