In a last-ditch effort by the United States to salvage the direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent eight full hours with Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning. The result was nothing short of remarkable from Clinton’s standpoint; the Israeli prime minister agreed that a resumption of negotiations would be a good idea. As Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace diplomat says in Foreign Policy, “any advance in the excruciatingly painful world of Arab-Israeli negotiations is significant.”
The downside is that the United States were forced to give up a lot of concessions just to convince the Israelis to take some positive steps forward. Essentially, the Obama Administration bribed Israel into accepting its position for the short term.
For a measly three-month extension of the settlement moratorium that originally expired in late September, Washington asked Congress to sell $3 billion worth of US military aircraft to the Israel Defense Forces, on top of the billion dollar aid package Tel Aviv receives on an annual basis. Perhaps more important for Netanyahu, the United States promised to veto any resolution at the UN Security Council that would embarrass Israel or condemn the occupation of Palestinian land.
The third assurance from Obama and Clinton is that East Jerusalem would be exempted from any additional freeze in Jewish settlements; a concession that the Palestinians have already stated as unacceptable. And the most consequential of all is a written American promise that this will be the last time President Obama asks the Israelis to halt settlement construction through official channels.
Netanyahu must be smiling, but all for the wrong reasons. Once again, his government was able to sidestep US demands, as well as pressure from the Israeli right. By acquring a tremendous amount of aid from Washington, Netanyahu can portray his recent trip to America as a victorious one. This may provide him with the necessary support to pass the new deal through the Israeli security cabinet; some hardliners have already indicated that they will abstain from the vote, thus virtually assuring that the proposal will be signed.
But the three month deadline is quite troubling. Even if Netanyahu successfully implements the new agreement, his negotiators will be coerced into hammering out a deal with the Palestinians on borders within an extremely short period of time (an issue that has eluded the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for close to twenty years).
The logic is simple: if borders are established, Israel can build on whatever territory is inside the Israeli line of control.
But if that deal cannot be reached within the three month timeframe (and that is unfortunately a possible scenario), then the entire enterprise is basically dead as long as Netanyahu is in the top job. Construction will continue on the West Bank, as is already happening in East Jerusalem, further eluding the possibility of a two state solution. And Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will respond by withdrawing from the process all together.
This may be Obama’s last chance to make some headway, at least during his first term in office. Otherwise, US diplomats might as well wait until a new Israeli government is seated.