Dec 9th 2010

US-Israel-Palestine Standoff

by Steve Clemons

-- Steve Clemons is Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note

Barack Obama's latest effort to seduce Benjamin Netanyahu to stop expanding illegal settlements in occupied territories as a portal into renewed Palestine-Israel talks has collapsed.

Khruschev, Oops, I mean Netanyahu has yet again thrown eggs in the face of President Obama, humiliated him and his team -- including Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross who helped craft the plan to bribe Israel with military aid.

President Obama should be fuming, behind closed doors. One wonders if Netanyahu is the reason that the overworked President is having an extraordinarily tough time saying no to cigarettes.

The collapse of this malformed initiative in which America belittled itself by offering Israel so much to do so little (a 90 day freeze?) is actually a great thing -- and if I were meeting with the President now, I would tell him that I think he was lucky that things fell through and that he should relax.

If the Israelis had taken the deal offered and then not made the 90 day dance work towards something constructive, hopes would again have been raised among Palestinians and among Arabs in the region for progress. The collapse of the process at the end of the 90 days would have yielded more potential damage, even violence, than a collapse before the arrangement even started.

Netanyahu and Abu Mazen can't blame Hamas on these talks failing. There are no radicals (other than a few in the Israeli Cabinet) who can be pointed to. The Palestine-side of the equation of Salam Fayyad, Mahmoud Abbas, Mohammed Dahlan, and others is about as American-compliant and moderate a team that could be imagined. And yet a deal could not be achieved.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and other very wise foreign policy practitioners from America's higher stakes Cold War past recommended to President Obama that he lay out his own parameters and vision for what the outlines of a final deal should look like. They strongly encouraged him to "make his own weather" and to provide this outline of his views before the February 2009 Israeli elections.

Barack Obama failed to heed their advice. Big mistake. And ever since, Obama has been responding to the weather that Bibi Netanyahu has created.

It's time to change up the game -- just as in a basketball game when things aren't going well, or in the early part of Obama's presidential campaign in late 2007/early 2008 when Lou Susman and others held a serious come to Jesus meeting with Obama about how serious he was (or wasn't) about running for President.

Barack Obama needs to push reset -- needs the foreign policy equivalents of Lou Susman, Penny Pritzker, and others to tell him to stop behaving as if he is JFK the novice and needs to become JFK the great. At Ted Sorensen's memorial service last night, I couldn't stop thinking about the tremendous faith that Sorensen had in Kennedy early on, through all of his mistakes, helping him finally to achieve big scores in the Cuban Missile Crisis and securing the the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

My hunch is that people around the President like Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, Jon Favreau, and Adam Frankel are collectively the Ted Sorensens of today -- though not quite the irreplacable him. They have faith in President Obama, and they need to guide him into what will eventually be a collision with Netanyahu that will both be part unstoppable assertion of America's power combined with sensible restraint. But there is no doubt that the President now must put his imprint on the deal he wants and no longer depend on the illusion that the two primary parties have the maturity or sense of their long term national security interests to do a deal on their own.

Now, the President needs to reach out to those he has not heard before. The ones he had on his team who got drawn into the weeds of the Palestine-Israel mess, or who thought that they could make Palestinian moderates look like winners in a "too much, too late" strategy of offering them lots of resources to shower on their constituents, or who thought that Benjamin Netanyahu would yield to the US President because of his experience not having done so his last time he held the same post -- have been wrong.

This is the time for new ideas, for the Palestinians and Israelis to hear Barack Obama's vision on the outlines of a final status deal, and for "bridging proposals."

This failure announced yesterday is actually a great opportunity. I happened to chat with President Bill Clinton last night at the International Crisis Group Annual Dinner honoring George Soros -- and as grim as things might appear on the surface, Clinton too thought that there was an opportunity to move the parties forward. (President Obama really ought to give President Clinton a call to have a chat on the subject.)

There are ideas kicking out there that I will elucidate in further days -- but the key at the moment is for the White House to step back and realize that it missed a bullet by this plan collapsing. This now gives the President significantly more latitude in going back to a broad stakeholder approach to a deal -- and to putting his own views out more directly.

That's the course the administration has been privately flirting with a long time -- but has been too shy or too timid to offer. Netanyahu's failure to perform, his rejection of President Obama's effort at seduction, now opens the door to better, healthier possibilities.

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