Obama’s Plan: Let Netanyahu and Abbas Stew in Their Juices

Senior White House official tells Haaretz U.S. president hopes that after a few months with no negotiations and less U.S. involvement, both sides will understand it is in their interest to renew talks.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
Barack Obama walking down Cross Hall with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, September 1, 2010.
Barack Obama walking down Cross Hall with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, September 1, 2010. Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to use the “time out” in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which he announced in the wake of the failure of American mediation efforts, to cause the respective leaders to stew in their own juices.

A senior White House official, who requested anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter, told Haaretz that Obama hopes that after a few months without negotiation and a reduction of U.S. involvement in the peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will understand that it is in their interest to renew the peace talks — though this time more seriously.

“For now we are letting the parties confront the new reality…we hope they realize the [consequences of] failure will be more difficult in the long run than success,” he said.

Despite the time out in negotiations, Obama does not intend to completely abandon the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The senior official noted that in the two and a half years left in his term the U.S. president intends to try to advance the issue if the conditions are ripe.

“We are going to take this pause and see how the parties digest the end of this round of talks. Then we will evaluate when the best time is for either the parties to ask us themselves to come back into the talks or for the U.S. to try and take the initiative,” said the White House official.

The American administration has still not conducted a proper evaluation of the situation in the wake of the failure of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians. For example, no decision has yet been made as to how long the time out Obama declared should last. But Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to spend time in the near future dealing with issues such as the crisis in Ukraine, the nuclear talks with Iran and strengthening the United States’ position in Asia.

Martin Indyk, the U.S. special representative to the peace talks, has still not left his post officially, but has expressed his desire - at least for now - to return to his previous job as the vice president and head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. The senior White House official described Indyk’s present role using a baseball metaphor: “Martin is in the bullpen waiting to be called in if he is needed. Whatever he does – he will be the guy to be called in if there is another effort.”

The White House’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who visited Jerusalem and Ramallah 10 days ago, made it clear in her meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas that if they want to return to the negotiating room with more serious intentions, then the United States would leave the door open. “We also made clear that we are not going to do that unless there is a different environment and a different demonstration of will on their part,” the senior official told Haaretz.

Obama is not interested in renewing American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process only to find that Netanyahu and Abbas will once again start negotiating the “conditions of the negotiations,” or resume talks just for the sake of appearances, he said. The two leaders will need to commit to starting on the formulation of an overall peace agreement, and to make difficult decisions even at the price of internal political conflicts, said the official.

“The president tried to convince Netanyahu and Abbas to take more risks… but at the end of the day what we heard from both was that politically it is too difficult. You are not going to get a peace agreement without doing politically difficult things. At some point this hurdle will have to be passed,” he said.

“We want them to signal willingness to come back to negotiations around a comprehensive solution to address the issues that were discussed over the course of those nine months. At the end of the day we want to go for a comprehensive solution. We don’t want to fall back into this trap of endless confidence building measures,” added the senior White House official.

The Americans expect that any renewal of their involvement in the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians will be accompanied by a significant reining in of construction in the settlements on Israel’s part, and an end to the sanctions against the Palestinian Authority such as the freeze on the transfer of tax revenues.

The White House official said that Indyk’s speech ten days ago, in which he emphasized that massive building in the settlements during the period of negotiations caused critical damage to the peace talks, was planned and completely reflected Obama’s own positions. “Settlements throughout the process were an irritant, especially at difficult junctures,” he said.

But the Palestinians would also have meet a number of conditions for the United States to be convinced that there was any point in making another attempt at the peace process. “The Palestinians would have to avoid further provocations. Not escalating their moves in international organizations and not having a government that does not meet the quartet principals – recognition of Israel’s right to exist, commitment to previous agreements and renouncing of violence,” said the senior White House official.

Obama has no regrets

An issue that, in terms of the White House, has been indefinitely removed from the table is the possibility of releasing Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard. During the attempts to reach a deal to extend talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the White House considered the possibility of releasing Pollard in return for the release of 14 Arab-Israeli prisoners from Israeli jails. "Pollard's release was discussed in a very specific context, and the circumstances that allowed such disscussion no longer exist," the senior White House official said.

Despite the failure of the U.S. peace initiative and what seems like the beginning of a significant deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Obama does not regret the efforts made over the past year. The White House official said that progress was indeed made in the nine months of talks; while Indyk, Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians worked on the document detailing the framework for negotiations, the official said, some of the outlines of the future peace agreement were revealed – even if both sides did not agree to fully accept them.

Kerry is toying with the idea of publicizing the framework document in order to reveal the progress made, but the White House is wary of such a move. "We are not planning to present the framework paper at this point," the official said. "It is not in the drawer but it is sitting on the desk. If they want to come back in to the office and take another run at it we are open to that."

In addition, the White House is pleased both with the plan drawn up by General John Allen, which proposes security arrangements for a two-state reality, and with the plan to restore and upgrade the Palestinian economy – devised by the U.S. administration, the quartet envoy Tony Blair and private sector representatives. These two plans "can be put back in the mix if the parties are willing to come back to the table seriously," the official said.

Obama also believes that looking back at the past five years, his administration's involvement in the peace process was not fruitless, despite a series of failed attempts. The official pointed to the Israeli premier's own statements: "Netanyahu's statements today are much different than what they were back in 2009," he said. "There is movement over time. He did move in the general right direction, but at the end of the day, you do need to take that extra step- and that didn’t happen."

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