We initially thought it rather odd that President Obama chose an audience of mostly students to deliver an important speech during his visit to Israel last month. Indeed, his message was a call for them to change the Israeli system from within so that the government might be more receptive to peace proposals.
What was perplexing was that any prospect for that sort of change necessarily would have to await the maturing of his audience, which, in any event, numbered a just few hundred. This was hardly an urgent plan for the here and now. In fact, the administration had been signaling for weeks prior to the trip that the president was not bringing any specific proposals with him and tried to lower expectations of a breakthrough.
Now Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be following in the president’s footsteps with his touting of a long-term economic development package for the Palestinians to encourage them to agree to resume negotiations with Israel. Significantly, he has also urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a resumption of talks without any preconditions, which, of course, is the Israeli position.
According to an article last week in The Wall Street Journal,
The Obama administration is mapping out an economic strategy in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, using both U.S. government funds and private-sector involvement, in a bid to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The effort will involve the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corp., and U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as private American companies, Secretary of State John Kerry said at the end of a three-day visit to Israel.
The Obama administration is betting that economic improvements will encourage Palestinians to view peace talks positively. It plans to pair the investment with a focus on allowing greater freedom of movement by Palestinians throughout the West bank and an easing of Israeli restrictions on business.
To be sure, the WSJ piece and similar stories in The New York Times and The Jerusalem Post have Mr. Kerry saying the economic plans were not in lieu of a political track and that there could be some quick benefit to the Palestinians. But in all three reports there is clearly no sense of immediacy to the overall plan.
Mr. Abbas certainly seems to get the drift and greeted Mr. Kerry’s proposal with a reiteration of his preconditions for a resumption of talks and the addition of some more. According to most accounts, his list now includes a halt to all construction and renovation within the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem; the prompt release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails; receiving an Israeli map of final borders; Israel’s turning over parts of Area C to Palestinians; and a commitment from Israel to never again withhold tax revenues.
One is reminded of President Obama’s observation about substantive preconditions during his Mideast trip: “If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there is no point for negotiations…”
But Mr. Abbas knows this and he knows that Prime Minister Netanyahu could never agree to his preconditions. He persists, though, in signaling to President Obama that he must pressure Israel to make concessions rather than continue his arms-length approach. In the interests of true peace, let us hope the president does not bend.