With the start of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington, there is one overriding question:
What does the Obama administration think it will get out of this?
We know what the Palestinians want: They hope to see Israel forced to stop construction outside of the Green Line, while they push forward with EU-funded projects to create facts on the ground in Israeli-administered Area C. They hope to make it impossible for Israel to back away from the idea that the 1949 armistice lines are in fact the boundaries of ‘Palestinian land’, and not mere accidents of history. They want to further cement their narrative about history and international law, including fantastic conceptions like ‘right of return’ in the world’s — and America’s — consciousness. They have already gained agreement to the release of many convicted murderers, a humiliating loss of face for Israel and a huge propaganda victory for them.
We also know what Israel wants: To avoid an open break with the Obama Administration at a time of extreme peril for the Jewish state. A confrontation with Iran — or the lack of one, equally dangerous — is certain within the next year. Hizballah’s missiles and Iran’s nuclear program will not go away by themselves. While it would be dreaming to expect the US to take real action against Iran, it is essential to maintain at least nominal American support for Israel’s actions.
In Israel, only the extreme Left, for whom a complete removal of Jews from the territories is literally more important than the survival of a Jewish state, thinks that it would be a good thing for Israel to sign an agreement with the PLO today.
It is impossible to imagine that these talks will succeed (here are 22 good reasons why not). But nevertheless, the administration pushes on. Why?
I believe that the reason is a fundamental ideological commitment by Barack Obama, one on which he has not wavered since his election, to the Palestinian cause. He expressed this commitment to his friend Rashid Khalidi in 2003, who told Palestinian-Americans “You will not have a better senator under any circumstances.”
Note that I said “Palestinian cause,” not the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The difference is that although he pays lip service to Israeli security, it is clear that he gives it a very low priority compared to Palestinian sovereignty. It is impossible to know if he is actually hostile to the Jewish state, but at best he seems to think that its security will take care of itself, and focuses on the Palestinian side.
In his first term, Obama tried to get negotiations going on very similar principles. But he made some tactical mistakes — primarily, not coordinating his plans with the Palestinians in advance — and was made to look foolish by Netanyahu. He backed down.
At the time, many pro-Israel people argued that a second-term president would have less to lose — and will have learned from his first-term mistakes. And indeed, this seems to be the case. Now, less than a year into his second term, the other shoe is finally dropping.
Obama now has his team in place — a team that (despite disingenuous statements made during confirmation proceedings) is far more anti-Israel than his first-term people. Kerry, Hagel, Power, Indyk — all are much closer to the Palestinian point of view, less concerned with Israel’s security, than their predecessors.
I think that the administration understands that the talks will not succeed (let’s face it, anyone with half a brain understands this). As Barry Rubin argues, the Palestinians believe that they will get everything they want by international pressure, legitimized and enforced by UN — this time the Security Council — action. So they will make no concessions. The talks will go nowhere, except insofar as Israel will be made to show good faith — this is the same strategy used in so many con games, by the way — with giveaways like the prisoner release.
Following Rubin’s argument, then the US will be able to say that it has tried its best, but [insert how it is Israel's fault here]. Therefore, it can and will abandon the position it has taken for decades, that the question of Palestinian sovereignty, borders, Jerusalem, etc. must be settled between the parties. It will agree that the UN, the International Court of Justice, etc. may decide the issues.
And then the US will acquiesce in Palestine’s unilateral independence. Perhaps UN Ambassador Samantha Power will be one of the first to announce her nation’s recognition of the new state.
This is the sound of Barack Obama dropping the other shoe.