Obama Failed Mideast

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post, July 14, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

President Obama called resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "a vital national security interest of the United States." In 2009, on his second day in office, Obama named former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell as his special envoy for Mideast peace. Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israel’s prime minister for a second time not long after. In May, Netanyahu made his way to Washington for his first meeting with Obama as president. With Netanyahu by his side, Obama told reporters: "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward."

Netanyahu was stunned. When Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader who had spent a lifetime promoting an independent Palestine, arrived in Washington in late May 2009 for his first meeting with Obama, Hillary Clinton said of Obama, "He wants to see a stop to settlements."

Obama's twin meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas that May were steps along the path to Cairo, where in June he delivered the signature foreign policy address of his first term. He warned Palestinians over anti-Israel incitement, rejected the official strains of Holocaust denial, and condemned suicide terrorism, saying "Palestinians must abandon violence." On the other hand, he said, the Palestinian people had suffered in pursuit of a homeland, and endured "the daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation."

On June 8, 2009, Obama spoke by phone to Netanyahu. Less than a week later, Netanyahu endorsed, for the first time, the Palestinian right to an independent state. Obama called the speech an important first step, though Palestinians dismissed it as an empty gesture. But Israel continued to resist a settlement freeze. Then, in November, Netanyahu announced a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem, so Abbas called it meaningless.

In March 2010, Obama tapped Vice President Biden to go to Israel. As Biden arrived in Tel Aviv, he received disturbing news. Israel's Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Mitchell called it an extraordinary and unfortunate coincidence. For Biden it was a diplomatic embarrassment. He issued a statement from Jerusalem that used the term "condemn" — the most severe one he had.

While the vice president was in the air, Obama had breakfast with Secretary Clinton at the White House. By the end of the meal, Clinton returned to the State Department and called Netanyahu. For about 45 minutes, she criticized him and called what had happened a humiliation to the United States. Netanyahu effectively froze new building in East Jerusalem after the call. But less than two weeks later, Netanyahu traveled to Washington for an annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In his speech, he said: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital."

Abbas decided the time was right to talk. The talks were inaugurated at the White House on September 1, 2010. Three weeks later, Obama told the UN General Assembly in his annual address that "when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." Within days, Israel's settlement freeze expired and with it the direct talks. After a year and a half of pressure on Israel, Obama had nothing to show for it.

In January 2011, Obama called Abbas. After the direct negotiations collapsed, Abbas had urged Arab nations to submit a resolution to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlement building on occupied land and calling for a new freeze. Obama now urged Abbas to withdraw the settlement resolution. Abbas said he planned to proceed. A few weeks later, Obama used his Security Council veto to kill the resolution, infuriating the Arab world.

By then, the Arab Spring was unfolding. Mitchell and Mideast "quarterback" Dennis B. Ross disagreed over how Obama should talk about the issue. Mitchell argued that Obama should endorse new direct talks based on the pre-1967 lines and wanted Obama to take on the division of Jerusalem and the right asserted by millions of Palestinians to return to Israel. Mitchell lost, Ross won.

In May 2011, Obama said that for Israelis, the conflict had meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets. For Palestinians, he said it had meant "suffering the humiliation of occupation" — and added that Israeli settlement activity continued.

Netanyahu felt blindsided by Obama's idea that talks would start from the original 1967 lines, not the new Israeli settlement boundaries that extend deep into the West Bank. In the Oval Office the next day, Obama and Netanyahu sat side by side. Netanyahu said Obama had little understanding of how the Mideast worked. "I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians are going to have to accept some basic realities."

AR  Tragic facts that may encourage Mitt Romney.