JERUSALEM — American diplomacy in the Middle East appears to be tied up in knots. It is fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies.
This is true of the way the United States has been dealing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well as with Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The obsessive effort to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been marked by American rhetoric that has upset or aggravated both sides.
This was the case when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suddenly abandoned the initial American demand that all construction work in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements be halted. She indicated during her overnight visit to Jerusalem, where she conferred with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, that a settlement freeze need not be, and never was meant to be, a condition for the resumption of negotiations.
She simply ignored the fact that Netanyahu refuses to go along with this idea as a prerequisite for the so-called peace process to continue. Instead, she praised the Israeli leader for endorsing the two-state solution and accepting the prospective establishment of a Palestinian state.
Predictably, Israel’s mass media trumpeted Clinton’s statements, implying that Netanyahu’s policy scored resounding success.
But the media sidestepped the angry reaction voiced by the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and the fact that it was publicized shortly after the news conference convened by Clinton and Netanyahu.
“If America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze, what chances do Palestinians have of reaching agreement with Israel on permanent-status issues?” Erekat asked. He added that without a settlement freeze there would be no Palestinian state.
His words were a bitter rebuttal to Clinton’s ebullient remarks. “What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlement which he has just described — no more starts, for example — is unprecedented in the context of prior-to negotiations,” she said.
Clinton backtracked as soon as she arrived in Morocco. She reportedly told a pan-Arab conference there that Netanyahu’s “restraint” with regard to new construction in the Israeli settlements was insufficient.
Referring to Netanyahu’s call for the resumption of bi-lateral talks without any prior conditions on Israel’s part, Clinton also said, “There’s never been such an offer from any Israeli government and we hope that we’ll be able to move into the negotiations where all the issues that President Obama mentioned in his speech at the United Nations will be on the table for the parties to begin to resolve.”
Predictably, the angry Palestinian rhetoric that ensued — especially from the official P.A. spokesperson as well commentators in the Arabic media — is based on the belief that President Obama has gone back on his word. They evidently recall presidential statements that advocate a halt to Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Although the hard-line Hamas gave no credence to the president’s words, the Palestinian Authority assumed that it has a faithful friend in the White House and assumed a degree of self-confidence, which came as no surprise to Israeli experts in Arab political behavior.
Underlying this response is the oratorical overture to the Arab and Muslim world voiced by the president in the watershed speech that he delivered in Cairo earlier this year.
It created the impression that the United States not only was going to be even-handed in its dealings with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but also was tilting in the P.A. government’s direction.
The result of all this is a diplomatic stalemate. George Mitchell, the president’s envoy in the region, is further from his goal of jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations than at any time since his mission began. His fortunes may improve after Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak confer with administration leaders in Washington, later this month, but Palestinian insistence on the settlement freeze and President Mahmoud Abbas’ internal problems in the run-up to an uncertain Palestinian election may prolong the deadlock anyway.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)