Obama Meets Palestine’s Abbas in the Wild Wild West Bank

Gaza militants fire rockets at Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants to freeze settlement building on the West Bank. Despite Obama’s visit to Ramallah Thursday, we’re still no closer to peace, reports Eli Lake.

President Obama’s mission in Ramallah Thursday failed to restart the long-dormant peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking after their discussions, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his demand for the Israelis to freeze settlement activity on the West Bank before peace talks would begin.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas participate in a joint news conference at the Muqata Presidential Compound, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, on March 21, 2013. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity so we can at least speak of issues,” Abbas said.

In those words the Palestinian leader reiterated a demand first suggested by President Obama in 2009. Back then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze, though the freeze did not cover existing orders for construction. This was meant to be an enticement for Abbas to return to negotiations. But for many reasons the timing was not right, and Netanyahu went back to building within settlements.

Abbas had agreed, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, to peace talks with Israel while Israel built settlements. Indeed Abbas nearly inked a final settlement deal in private talks with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.

With Abbas at least publicly calling for a settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks, Obama is now saying that the talks should begin with no preconditions. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, I want to make sure we are getting to the core issues and the substance, understanding that both sides should be doing what they can to build confidence and to gain trust,” he said.

At one point Obama said Israelis could make an excuse not to enter negotiations because they face rocket attacks. A short-range rocket was fired Thursday early in the morning from Gaza into the Israeli city of Sderot. Obama condemned it at the podium with Abbas. Israeli officials have said they do not intend to respond to the attack.

An Israeli former deputy foreign minister and peace negotiator, Zalman Shoval told The Daily Beast that he was pleased that Obama himself in this visit acknowledged the mistakes in his approach on the settlement freeze from the first term.

“This approach radicalized the Palestinians. It created a lack of trust in Israel, certainly with the government but also with the public. If you remember the public-opinion polls, the opinion of Israelis, this was not just a right-wing reaction,” Shoval said.

At one point Obama said Israelis could make an excuse not to enter negotiations because they face rocket attacks.
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) poses with a group of dancers following a performance at the al-Bireh Youth Center in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 21, 2013. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

He also said the premise of the settlement freeze at least was incorrect. “There were negotiations when settlement negotiations were going on, and there were no negotiations when there was a settlement freeze in place,” he said. “We need to support the idea that talks should be without preconditions.”

Daniel Seidermann, an Israeli lawyer who tracks settlement growth and is a major critic of the enterprise, however, said Obama’s remarks in Ramallah displayed a lack of urgency and awareness about how Israeli settlement expansion will destroy the prospect of two states for two peoples.

“Obama set the bar and then lowered it and this made it difficult for Abbas,” Seidermann said.

“This does not concern me. The settlements are creating critical facts on the ground demographically and geographically that will make any two-state solution impossible.”

He added, “What I am seeing—I know what plans are out there—is that I don’t know that we will be able to draw a map acceptable to both parties if the settlements continue.”

While Abbas said publicly that he needed a settlement freeze before he could begin talks, there may be some wiggle room. The New York Times published Thursday excerpts from the private talking points of Abbas for his meeting with Obama that said he may be able to start talks if Netanyahu froze settlement construction but did not announce this officially. Netanyahu did something similar for most of 2010 for construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel does not consider to be a settlement, after Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton publicly chastised him when the Interior Ministry announced the construction of new housing in an East Jerusalem neighborhood. Between March and November, there was an unofficial freeze of East Jerusalem construction.

But such an unofficial policy looks like it would be a difficult political task for Netanyahu. Earlier this week after the new Israeli governing coalition formed, Uri Ariel, Israel’s new minister of housing who is himself a settler, said in an interview with Israeli television that he intended to continue settlement construction for the new government.