Recent History

Who "Froze" The Peace Process?

Peter Beinart corrects the common misconception that it was President Obama who "froze" the peace process, when really it was Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jeff Goldberg has a new Bloomberg column arguing that President Obama has not done enough to support the rebels in Syria, which had me mostly nodding in agreement until I reached this offhand comment about Israel: "Obama was wrong to draw a line in the sand over settlements, which are a derivative issue (if the Israelis and Palestinians settle their borders, the settlement issue will also be solved). But because he made it an issue without a thought to follow-up, he managed to freeze the process."

This is nonsense. And because Jeff's view is widely shared in establishment Jewish circles, it's worth taking some time to explain why.

First of all, whether or not you agree with Obama's 2009 decision to push for a halt to settlement growth (in tandem with a push for steps toward diplomatic normalization by Arab governments—Jeff leaves that part out), Obama's push did not "freeze the [peace] process." What froze the peace process was Benjamin Netanyahu’s election earlier that year.

Let's back up. Before Netanyahu's election, the peace process had been about as unfrozen as possible. Between December 2006 and September 2008, Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, had met 36 times. According to the reporting of Bernard Avishai, Olmert and Abbas had made substantial headway. They had agreed that a Palestinian state would have no army, that an international force would patrol the Jordan Valley, that Israel would have access to a Palestinian state's airspace and telecommunications spectrum, and that the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would remain part of Israel's capital while the Arab ones would form the capital of a Palestinian state. The two men were still haggling about borders, control of Jerusalem's holy sites and Palestinian refugees, but even there, progress was made. (Abbas wanted Israel to accept far more refugees than did Olmert, but according to Avishai, he conceded that refugee return should not undermine Israel's Jewish character.) “If I had remained prime minister for another four to six months,” Olmert later told The Times of Israel, “I believe it would have been possible to reach an agreement. The gaps were small.”

But Olmert didn't last another four to six months. In September 2008, facing corruption charges, he resigned and became a caretaker prime minister pending new elections the following February. When Netanyahu won those elections, he not only refused to continue Olmert's negotiations, he initially refused to endorse even the concept of a Palestinian state. As The New York Times reported, "[Netanyahu] aides are convinced that negotiations with Palestinian leaders will lead nowhere and that the best steps Israel can take, as it waits for Palestinian attitudes to change, involve building the Palestinian economy."

This is what froze the peace process, and it put both Abbas and the Obama White House in a bind. Both would have preferred to continue the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas. And had Netanyahu done so, key administration officials believe the Palestinians would not have demanded a settlement freeze as a precondition for direct talks. After all, Abbas had not demanded one between 2006 and 2008. From Abbas' perspective, if you're engaged in peace talks you will believe will reach fruition soon, a halt to settlement growth isn't as important since Israel can't expand settlements that dramatically in such a short period of time.

The Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze, therefore, was intimately connected to Netanyahu's election. It was a way of guarding against endless negotiations with a prime minister who wanted talks to deflect international pressure but had no interest in making the kind of concessions necessary to create a Palestinian state. (Even when Netanyahu, under U.S. pressure, endorsed the concept of Palestinian statehood in June 2009, he still outlined conditions—for instance, an undivided Jerusalem and no Israeli acceptance of any Palestinian refugees—that placed him well outside the Abbas-Olmert parameters. In fact, Netanyahu's late father, Benzion, explained that his son only "supports it [a Palestinian state] under conditions that they will never accept.")

So Abbas pushed for a settlement freeze. (Something Israel had actually agreed to in the 2003 "Road Map for Peace.") And the Obama administration—wanting to show the Palestinians that they were benefitting from Abbas' decision to help Israel fight terrorism—signed on. Jeff is right that the White House didn't think through what it would take to make Netanyahu comply. (As it happened, Netanyahu agreed to a ten-month "freeze" so riddled with loopholes that it allowed Israel to build more new West Bank housing in 2010, the freeze year, than it had in 2008.) But if the White House lacked a strategy for winning the fight it picked on settlements, that's largely because doing so would have required real administration pressure on Israel, which would have sparked massive blowback from the "pro-Israel" forces in Washington, something Obama was determined to avoid. In hindsight, it's easy to say that Obama shouldn't have focused on settlements. But had he instead tried to get Netanyahu to negotiate inside the parameters outlined by Olmert (which resembled those laid out by Bill Clinton in December 2000), he would have faced exactly the same problem. How do we know? Because after giving up on the settlements issue, Obama tried that alternative strategy in May 2011 when he proposed negotiations based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps. And, once again, he got nowhere because he wouldn't put real pressure on Netanyahu to agree. To suggest, therefore, as Jeff does, that what "froze" the peace process was Obama's emphasis on settlements is wrong. What "froze" the peace process was Netanyahu's lack of interest in creating a viable Palestinian state, and Obama's unwillingness to truly confront him on it.

But even more baffling than Jeff's claim that it was Obama who froze the peace process is his claim that the settlements "are a derivative issue" because "if the Israelis and Palestinians settle their borders, the settlement issue will also be solved." Is Jeff really unaware that the settlements are a big part of the reason the two sides haven't been able to agree on borders? Obviously, settlements aren't the only reason that past talks have failed, but every time the Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated seriously, a major stumbling block has been Israel's demand to maintain large settlements like Ariel, which Palestinians believe imperil the contiguity of their future state. It is precisely because of Israel's decades of settlement building that in his final offer at Camp David in July 2000, Ehud Barak demanded that Israel annex nine percent of the West Bank (while giving the Palestinians one-ninth as much land within the green line in return). In the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Barak feared that if he did not incorporate eighty percent of the settlers into Israel, he risked civil war. But to do so, he needed to annex Ariel, which stretches thirteen miles into the West Bank, and which even Barak's own former negotiator, Shlomo Ben Ami, has conceded makes the "contiguity of a Palestinian state something that is very, very difficult to imagine."

Similarly, in 2008, Olmert proposed annexing just over six percent of the West Bank (while giving the Palestinians almost as much land inside the green line in return). But that was still a far larger annexation than Abbas—who proposed a roughly two percent land swap—would accept. The reason for the gap? Because Israeli leaders can't imagine dismantling a settlement like Ariel, which boasts almost 20,000 people and houses Israel's newest university, and Palestinian leaders can’t imagine swallowing it since it largely cuts off cities like Tulkarm and Qalqilya from the rest of the West Bank. Indeed, Avishai notes that in his talks with Olmert, Abbas "kept coming back" to the subject of Ariel.

None of this is to suggest that the Palestinians and the Obama administration bear no blame for the failures of the last three plus years. Even if Abbas were willing to sign a deal (and that remains a big if), he'd still have to contend with Hamas. For his part, Obama has proven less able to nudge Netanyahu because he's failed to establish a rapport with Israel's people. But the claim that Obama "froze" the peace process by focusing on the "derivative" issue of settlements represents the kind of lazy, self-satisfied thinking peddled by American Jewish leaders who claim to support a two-state solution but never concede that Israel might be doing anything to undermine it. Jeff Goldberg knows better that. Unfortunately, you can't tell from his latest Bloomberg column.