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The End of the Beginning

After nine flailing months, Obama is starting to get a handle on the Middle East peace process.

With apologies to Winston Churchill, President Obama may not have presided over the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week in New York, but he seems finally to have marked the end of an embarrassing beginning to his Middle East diplomacy.

The president and his senior advisors came to office nine months ago eager to say and do what George W. Bush didn’t. In place of regime change, Islamo-fascism, and "you’re either with us or against us," Obama focused instead on behavior change, engagement, and an emphasis on "mutual interests and mutual respect."

Early on, one of the biggest policy shifts came on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama said he wanted action from day one, in contrast to the perception—however erroneous--that Bush waited until the Annapolis conference, seven years into his presidency, to throw himself into the hard work of peacemaking. The result was Obama’s appointment, on the first day of his administration, of former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy and his own personal commitment to push the process forward.

Mitchell was a sound choice and the president’s sense of urgency was itself inspiring. However, the strategy that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mitchell’s team together adopted to jumpstart a diplomacy with a weak Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the old-new Likud prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was anything but.

Under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the recipe for peacemaking began with a heavy dose of U.S.-Israel partnership. Because the peace process is, at its core, about asking Israelis to give up the tangible asset of land for the intangible and inherently revocable promise of peace, building Israel’s confidence in the strategic alliance with Washington has long been considered elemental.

The Obama team adopted a different approach. The process itself had gone stale, they surmised, and was in need of new energy. The jolt would come from securing  two huge concessions. First, the White House would win from Israel a public commitment on a total freeze in construction in the "occupied territories"; then, the Administration would leverage that concession to win from Saudi Arabia, arch-guardian of Muslim sensibilities, an agreement to take unprecedented steps toward normalization with Israel.

 here was a certain logic to this approach. Bringing Arab states into the process was a wise move; the divided Palestinians almost surely would never make the necessary movements to achieve peace without wider Arab backing. And targeting Jewish settlement activity was certainly meaningful to many Arabs, who saw rising numbers of Israelis in the West Bank as the antithesis of what a peace deal was supposed to promise.

But, remarkably, before the president went to Cairo and declared that "it is time for these settlements to stop" and before the Secretary of State characterized a freeze as "essential," no one in either the White House or Foggy Bottom seems to have asked some obvious questions. What does a freeze actually mean--no expropriation of land? no new settlements? no building in existing settlements? Would such a freeze apply equally to building in Jerusalem, the capital city that Washington does not recognize as such, as in some remote hilltop outpost? And would the eventual expiration of an agreed-upon period of freeze imply Washington’s tacit approval to start building again?

On the political level, the failure to think through the freeze idea was even more damning. Was the freeze really necessary to re-start negotiations, given that Palestinians--from Yasser Arafat on down--have had no compunction negotiating with Israel for the last sixteen years without one? Once Washington went out on a limb and articulated its demand for a total freeze--including, as Clinton said, no "natural growth exceptions"--could the Arabs accept anything less? And wouldn’t Washington’s direct bargaining with Israel over a freeze relieve the Arab side from having to contribute anything to this process?

The result was a diplomatic train-wreck. In June, after Obama and Clinton publicly demanded a freeze--but before the Americans reached a deal with the Israelis – the president flew to Riyadh to ask Saudi King Abdullah to ante up in terms of incremental normalization with Israel. The king reportedly sent the president packing. As the former Saudi ambassador to Washington wrote recently in The New York Times, "For Saudis to take steps toward diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality." Translation: "We aren’t going to pay anything to help you Americans achieve a settlement freeze. You are on your own."

Washington’s fixation on stopping settlement activity did have a powerful echo in at least one Middle East country: Israel. America’s freeze-mania managed to transform Israel’s deep national ambivalence about the wisdom of expanding West Bank settlements into patriotic support for the right of Jews to live in their ancient capital. By giving off vibes that it wanted a freeze even more than the Arabs themselves, and that it wanted to halt building even in Israel’s capital, the administration succeeded in making Netanyahu more popular than when he came to office in March. Obama’s own approval ratings among Israeli voters fell to single digits--and this is before he had shown whether he had the mettle to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the region’s real strategic threat. Getting into a fight with Israel without having anything to show for it from the Arabs was not what the president bargained for.

In New York last week, Obama finally changed course. To the consternation of Abbas, who had been happy to watch the Americans negotiate on his behalf for the past few months, the president announced that restarting peace talks would no longer be contingent on reaching agreement with Israel on a settlement freeze. America wanted the parties to begin negotiations, without preconditions, as soon as possible, he said. And in a move replete with irony, he specifically asked Hillary Clinton--who had articulated the Administration’s most hardline stance on settlements in June--to report back to him in mid-October on progress toward resuming peace talks. Speaking in the Waldorf-Astoria, the President’s words applied as much to him as to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders sitting nearby: "It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals." 

This nod to realism is a positive sign. Obama was not the first president to come into office with a policy rooted more in ideological attachment than dispassionate analysis, but, on this topic at least, he shifted gears more quickly than most. Indeed, another line from his Waldorf remarks suggests that he may now be on the right track in terms of the peace process. "I'm committed to pressing ahead in the weeks and months and years to come," he said. Yes, Mr. President, even with the best of intentions, forging peace in the Holy Land is indeed the work of years.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.