The Israelis certainly know how to run rings around the Americans. It is only a few months ago that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid down the law on behalf of President Obama about settlement activity on the West Bank:
“He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” Mrs Clinton said in a clear reference to arguments by Israeli leaders that existing settlements should be allowed to “thicken” to accommodate an expanding population.
“We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease,” she said. “That is our position. That is what we have communicated clearly. And we intend to press the point”.
The policy was clear and forthright, and there was no quid pro quo from the Americans – this was something that the Israelis had to do as a pre-condition.
Now we have the spectacle of Special Envoy George Mitchell in Jerusalem, attempting to negotiate a deal under which the Israelis will be prepared to come to the table for talks with the Palestinians, against the backdrop of the Israeli Cabinet having given the go-ahead for hundreds of new houses to be built. Mr Netanyahu has skilfully turned the focus from what is required for peace to what price everyone is prepared to pay for peace talks. His timing is good; President Obama’s efforts to get his health care reforms across the line are striking heavy weather and he is slipping in the polls, so he has less political capital to expend on behalf of the Palestinians.
More than somewhat insultingly, Mr Netanyahu has told the Americans that he might be prepared to consider a temporary freeze. Presumably what he has in mind is to call a halt until he can kill off the “peace process”, either by setting impossible preconditions, or by ensuring that there is no outcome. Once the talks have failed, settlement construction can resume.
There is a sad template which is a reasonable description of the pattern of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian talks going right back to 1967 and beyond that to the secret channel negotiations that took place as early as the 1950s. The pattern runs something like this:
(1) The Americans say to the Palestinians, “if you are prepared to offer some concessions we will get the Israelis to the table”.
(2) The Israelis either decline to talk (usually) or decline to make any concessions.
(3) The talks break down and both sides retire for a cooling off period.
(4) The Americans tell the Palestinians that to show their good faith they should leave their offer on the table and that becomes part of the new landscape.
(5) Some time later the Americans persuade the Palestinians that the time is ripe for another round of talks. To show they are genuine, they should bring something new to the table.
(6) The Israelis bank the new concession but again offer nothing in return.
(7) Repeat as often as you like, but do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
By this process over a period of decades the Israelis have increased their hold on the Palestinian Territories and advanced their long term objective of permanent control of all the territory of Mandate Palestine. Far from being too intransigent (“never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” as conservative commentators love to say), the Palestinians have been too reasonable, and been taken a slice at a time.
The question is whether the Israeli objective was a smart one. The two-state solution has become an illusion; it is too late for that, the occupation is too embedded. The day will come when the Israelis will wish they had seized the opportunity when they had the chance.
For earlier posts on this subject see Middle East: US policy all over the place and West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton