As I write this, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is here in Israel again, and it’s not stirring much excitement or even interest.
On Sunday he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the latter saying Mitchell had “interesting ideas” on how to get Israeli-Palestinian talks going again but not saying what the ideas were.
On Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated to Mitchell his refusal to talk with Netanyahu absent a total ban on Jewish building in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and East Jerusalem. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the fact that Israel had positions at all – on not giving up every inch of the West Bank, on the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state – made negotiating with Israel impossible.
Based on his statements to Time magazine’s Joe Klein last week, it can be surmised that President Obama is not all that surprised by Mitchell’s inability to get anything moving.
“This is just really hard,” Obama told Klein.
“Even for a guy like George Mitchell . Both sides – the Israelis and the Palestinians – have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation . From Abbas’s perspective, he’s got Hamas looking over his shoulder and, I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process.
“And on the Israeli front – although the Israelis, I think, after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies, they still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures .”
It is easy to poke holes in Obama’s evenhandedness here: the fact that while Netanyahu has been ready at all times to negotiate with Abbas, with not even his most right-wing coalition partners objecting to negotiations per se, it is Abbas who has stonewalled; the fact that it was not “after a lot of time,” but very quickly – in a matter of months since taking office – that Netanyahu made quite bold gestures of reversing his lifelong opposition to a Palestinian state and then announcing an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze in Judea and Samaria, none of which has sufficed to lure Abbas back to the table.
It is also easy to cite the usual political reasons for the stalemate – that Obama, by hitting Israel hard on the settlements issue particularly in his Cairo speech in June, forced Abbas into an uncompromising stance where he could not appear less Catholic than the pope; that the Palestinians, more generally, saw Obama as an ally and were disappointed when he showed understanding for some of Israel’s positions.
All of which is valid – but only grazes the truth.
Looking more deeply into what has “gone wrong” – and has kept going wrong ever since the formal Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process began in 1993 – would require taking account, for a change, of the cultural difference between Israel and the Palestinian side.
It was less than three weeks ago that Netanyahu complained to the White House and State Department about Palestinian incitement – and not by Hamas in Gaza, but by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Netanyahu was reacting to two particularly egregious incidents. In one, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad paid homage to three Palestinian terrorists who had been killed by Israeli forces after murdering an Israeli rabbi (a father of seven). In the other, Abbas named a square in Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi, the Palestinian woman terrorist who led the “Coastal Road Massacre” in 1978 – the worst terror attack in Israel’s history, killing 37 including 10 children.
Obama, for his part, had no public reaction to Abbas and Fayyad’s behavior, did not mention it in his interview to Klein, and clearly was not deterred by it from sending Mitchell for another round of attempted diplomacy.
As Obama did say to Klein, “we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren.”