It was supposed to be a daunting year for Benjamin Netanyahu, a year of American vision and Arab hope. Washington's outstretched hand to the Islamic world, dialogue with Iran, Israel finding its hands tied, U.S. envoy George Mitchell flying around, "two states for two peoples," talks with Syria - all this crammed into a timetable that didn't leave Israel's prime minister any room to breathe.
And still, this American jitterbug has quickly become a tap dance - a bit of graceful gliding and snazzy clothes, but mostly just a lot of noisy hopping in place. The peace process has not been renewed either with the Palestinians or Syria, and dialogue with Iran has been replaced by downgraded American sanctions. And Mitchell, the Mideast envoy? It's been a long time since we heard from him. The only achievements Barack Obama can claim on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are in extorting a declaration from Netanyahu that he is amenable to the two-state vision and a temporary and limited suspension of settlement construction.
Nonetheless, without even noticing, we have entered the freeze's second month, and in less than nine months this perilous situation will pass us by. It looks as if Netanyahu will blithely clear this hurdle put up by the U.S. president without breaking a sweat. From the grand vision of a year ago only fragments remain within reach, fragments not even fit to appear on Obama's CV.
Netanyahu has realized that real negotiations are not held between Israel and the Palestinians or Syrians, but between him and Obama. The prime minister cautiously determined the price he was willing to pay to protect relations with Washington, as long as he would not be forced to relinquish his ideology. This loss of a battle is minuscule compared to Netanyahu's major victory in the war. So far, it seems, Obama has fallen for the trick - he may have defeated Netanyahu, but not his policies.
It was no small gamble. Had Obama stuck to his original plan and convinced even some Arab states to take symbolic steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, had he persuaded Mahmoud Abbas that the freeze (even if limited) would offer the Palestinian president a ladder to let him climb down from the tree he finds himself up and return to peace talks, Netanyahu would have been forced to negotiate on the core issues. But Obama chose to focus on Netanyahu rather than a diplomatic target.
It was fascinating to see what Abbas himself wrote about the settlement freeze. When asked in an interview last week with the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat how he ended up in the tree, Abbas replied, "Obama laid down the condition of halting the settlements completely. What could I say to him? Should I say this is too much?" The Palestinian president, it appears, "blames" his American counterpart for landing him in this diplomatic predicament.
Abbas even asked for only a six-month construction suspension, without Israel even declaring as much in public. Netanyahu, by contrast, understood he only needed to take small steps, the kind that would placate Obama but not be enough to bring Abbas to the table. Now all that's left to Netanyahu is to get through the less than nine months remaining in the freeze, after which no one will pressure Israel to suspend settlement building. After all, Israel will say we tried, we agreed and we made concessions; there simply isn't a partner.
Syria was supposed to be the other victory in the Obama program. The beginning was auspicious - the visits to Damascus by top U.S. officials, including Mitchell, seemed to represent a full turnaround from the George W. Bush era. Indirect dialogue with Turkish mediation won American approval, and it seemed that just a small push was needed for Israeli and Syrian delegates to sit at the same table.
But a withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Not on Netanyahu's watch. As in the Palestinian case, Netanyahu singled out the "real" enemy, the one who would distance him from the "real" threat - negotiations. This time it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Netanyahu claims is no longer fit to serve as an intermediary. Syria insists that Turkey remain the mediator, or that it receive at least one more round to try. And what about the Americans? Will the Obama vision somehow be diminished if he invites Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar Assad to Washington?
It's true, not even a year has passed since Obama entered the White House, but the rules have already been set. Circumventing Obama is no longer such a complex act. For a reasonable price, Washington can be sedated and all sides can buy themselves an everlasting conflict.
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