A lively debate has erupted inside and outside the Obama Administration about the wisdom of Obama's decision to confront Netanyahu on settlements. The New York Times commends Obama and rejects compromises proposed by Netanyahu as "a weak offer." But the Washington Post thinks Obama's "absolutist" approach is "self-defeating… Palestinian and Arab leaders who had accepted previous compromises immediately hardened their positions [and] balked at delivering the 'confidence-building' concessions to Israel … Negotiations, which were active during the Bush administration's final year, have yet to resume…Mr. Obama will need to show both sides that they can trust him…[but] only one country has worse relations with the United States than it did in January: Israel."
In a Foreign Policy piece , I quoted Palestinian leaders boasting that they achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees—all while Olmert was openly avowing that "natural growth" would continue under the Bush understandings that Obama now disavows. Olmert told Yedioth Ahronoth in April 2008, "It was clear from day one to Abbas ... that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter. ... Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem ... areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement." Abbas did not break off the talks when Olmert said this; he continued meeting with the Olmert government. Now the same Palestinian leaders are refusing to meet at all unless Israel capitulates to Obama on demands that no major Israeli party can accept.
Aluf Benn of Ha'aretz, no hawk, wrote in the New York Times that Obama's policy is "counterproductive…Israelis [are] increasingly suspicious of Mr. Obama. All they see is American pressure on…Netanyahu…Only 6 percent…consider the Obama administration to be pro-Israel, while 50 percent said that its policies are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli…Netanyahu enjoys a virtual domestic consensus over his rejection of the settlement freeze…No Israeli political figure has stood up to…support Mr. Obama…And why deny with such force — as the administration did — the existence of previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction? There is simply too much evidence proving that such an understanding existed. To Israelis, the claim undermined Mr. Obama's credibility — and strengthened Mr. Netanyahu's position."
Now I am hearing the first reports of a split between the Left and the Center inside the Obama Mideast team, along the same lines as the public debate. Mara Rudman—Mitchell's principal deputy—is said to be the most outspoken in the pressure camp, while Dennis Ross and Tom Donilon (Deputy National Security Adviser under Jones) advocate working with the government of Israel to achieve progress. The Left says that Israel is a drunk at the wheel and needs to be saved from itself, and claims that Netanyahu can be brought to heel if enough leverage is applied. The Center says this approach is failing and calls for a course correction.
The immediate issue between the two camps is the terms of a settlements freeze. The Left thinks it can achieve zero growth, but the Center thinks a compromise will have to be found combining principles from the Bush understandings with additional elements for a temporary period. Watch this space.