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Middle East Reassessment

According to most accounts, the Obama administration is about to reassess its policy of trying to broker peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

As has been widely reported, the Palestinians have unilaterally opted to seek recognition from the UN rather than negotiate a settlement of statehood issues through negotiations with Israel. Seizing on Israel’s refusal to release the final 26 of 104 Palestinian terrorists Prime Minister Netanyahu had agreed to free, at America’s behest, in order to woo the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the Palestinian Authority has filed paperwork with various UN agencies.

A reassessment of American policy is long overdue, but if it is to be meaningful it is crucial that the U.S. not miss the forest for the trees. It should now be clearer than ever that the Palestinians have never finally determined that as a matter of fundamental policy they would seriously seek to negotiate a reasonable settlement of all issues between them and Israel, just as it has been plain for some time now that it was Obama administration policy that fed Palestinian recalcitrance by raising unrealistic expectations.

To be sure, American policy had long opposed the growth of Israeli settlements, but at the same time U.S. policymakers acknowledged that in any negotiated agreement there would be land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians to accommodate the large numbers of Israelis living in the settlements.

This policy reflected the American position on UN Resolution 242, adopted after the Six-Day War; namely, that the land for peace formula it embodied was focused on providing Israel with defensible borders, with the parameters of a future Palestinian state a secondary matter.

However, President Obama changed the terms of the debate. His first secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, declared that settlement construction must stop, “no ifs ands or buts,” with no mention of Israeli security concerns. And when the president himself declared the “ ‘67 lines” would be the “framework” for the negotiations, he in essence proclaimed the presumptive legitimacy of a Palestinian state in terms of a specific landmass subject to relatively minor adjustments.

Although Mr. Obama later spoke of “Israeli security requirements” and “recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments,” a tectonic shift in U.S. policy, as understood by both Palestinians and Israelis, had occurred.

Understandably, this caused the Palestinians to harden their position. Certainly, however, Israel, as the victor in 1967, was not about to abandon a formula that in effect discouraged Arab efforts at politicide.

So the pattern we now see is all the more understandable: As the Palestinian Authority sees it, negotiations with Israel cannot not be premised on meaningful Palestinian concessions. Essentially, in the Palestinian view, negotiations are merely a mechanism to provide the Palestinians with what they want.

This suggests an important context for Israel’s refusal to free the final group of prisoners. It did not come in a vacuum. In fact, it followed the Palestinians’ habit of making policy statements to the international media that they would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, never compromise the goal of East Jerusalem as their capital, never negotiate away a legal right of return for Palestinians claiming refugee status, never give up “one inch of Palestinian land” and never agree to a final settlement of all Palestinian claims against Israel.

Surely if the release of prisoners was designed to promote further negotiations, these definitive statements raise the question of what such negotiations would have accomplished.

That the Palestinians would have differing views on these issues from Israel is not surprising. But what is confounding is that they still insist there is some purpose to negotiations. This is something President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry should think long and hard about in the course of the reassessment. Even more so, it is time they recognize that negotiations can never succeed if the U.S. substantively supports Palestinian positions.

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