Hillary Clinton in the Middle East: is the Obama administration hitting the ‘reset’ button?

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

If anybody has a clue what the Obama administration is really up to on the Israeli-Palestinian front, I wish they’d send me the memo.

Over the weekend pro-Israel groups here were crowing about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that Israeli offers on limiting settlement construction were “unprecedented.”

That’s not exactly what she said; at a Saturday news conference, Clinton said that settlements have “always been an issue within the negotiations. What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described – no new starts, for example – is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations. It’s also the fact that for 40 years, presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements.”

The Palestinians were quick to label Clinton’s mission a U.S. cave-in to Israel. Mahmoud Abbas and company fear a chastened administration, backing away from its initial demand for a total settlement freeze, will now put the onus for the paralyzed peace process on the Palestinians, who adopted that demand and made it a precondition for new talks.

Today Clinton was busy clarifying her earlier remarks, saying that “Israel has done a few things but has to do much more.”

What all this means is anybody’s guess, but if pressed, I’d suggest this: the administration is trying to figure out how to back away from its initial insistence that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is at the top of its foreign policy agenda, without suggesting their initial moves were a flop and without sparking another round of violence based on unmet expectations.

The administration jumped into the deep end right after Obama’s inauguration and seemed surprised it was filled with sharks.  It began with a demand on settlements Israel was unlikely to accept, and in the ensuing walk-back managed to add to Mahmoud Abbas’ woes.

With Abbas weaker than ever, serious negotiations are becoming less likely by the day.
This doesn’t smack of sophisticated diplomacy, but these guys aren’t stupid; they have to realize that their promises and their initial diplomatic forays have backfired, and it’s time to recalibrate and reset expectations.

The problem is, that’s hard to do, especially with all parties to the conflict looking for excuses to avoid making the concessions any real peace process will require.

With numerous other foreign policy challenges demanding top-level attention, my guess is that the administration wants to retreat from its early promises of rapid progress and a sustained focus on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without looking like it blew it.

Let special envoy George Mitchell keep going back to the region, poking and prodding, and maybe something will come of it. Send Clinton on periodic missions to carry the flag and see if anything’s changed. And maybe now the administration’s Middle East team will work harder to lay the groundwork before announcing ambitious new goals on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

To be fair, former President George W. Bush did the same thing, promising a Palestinian state  and offering a constantly-changing timeline.  The difference: from the outset, almost nobody believed he was serious about it.

For a different take on the shifting sands of administration Mideast diplomacy, check out Ben Smith’s interesting item in today’s Politico. His view: it’s Hillary fault.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.