In his new book on the US-Israel relationship, Doomed to Succeed, Dennis Ross describes an Obama team entering office sold on a premise advanced by the Europeans and the Arabs: it wasn’t Palestinian rejectionism, but rather Israeli settlement activity, that formed the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Obama embraced this premise even though the rejectionism long preceded the settlements that supposedly cause the rejectionism, and even though the Palestinians have several times rejected offers of an independent state that would have ended settlements years ago. Obama’s team decided on a new strategy: distancing America from Israel and focusing its criticism on the Jewish state.
This premise has proven dead wrong. Seven years of indulging shameful Palestinian behavior while showcasing our distance from Israel has not only failed to advance peace between the two peoples. It has reduced any hope for a two-state solution anytime in the foreseeable future to tatters. Ross, a key Mideast adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents alike, puts it elegantly: there has been on the Obama administration’s part a “failure to think through the consequences of the distancing.”
When Obama took office, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had just spurned Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state consisting of Gaza, all of the West Bank, with land swaps, and a capital in Jerusalem — which is what the Palestinians supposedly seek.
Obama demanded that Israel meet Abbas’ condition for resuming peace talks — freezing settlement activity for nine months. Israel agreed, only to watch as Abbas continued to refuse to meet until the nine months were almost up and then walked away.
He would never return, preferring to stand aside while the administration blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the settlements, for opposing the Iranian deal and for a lack of progress in the peace talks that Abbas had abandoned. For his part, Abbas was content to pocket a free pass while Obama missed no opportunity to belittle Netanyahu. As Abbas told the Washington Post with satisfaction in May 2009: “In the West Bank, we have a good reality… the people are living a normal life.”
The administration’s approach has encouraged Abbas to extend his middle finger both to Israel and to any flickering hope for peace, and that is just what Abbas has done. He formed a unity government with Hamas, which fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians in 2012 and 2014 and is recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist enterprise. He has repeatedly incited Palestinians to violence, bestowing honors on those who murder Israelis and praising them as heroes.
The present stabbing intifada, by which Palestinians plunge their knives into people on Israeli streets, has been egged on by Abbas. “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure,” Abbas has told the potential attackers among his population, who themselves are likely to die killing Israelis. “Every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”
The administration has said little about any of this, and done even less. Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to make things worse, waving aside the killings and Abbas’ role in them as the product of a dormant peace process — a process which Abbas first abandoned and then torpedoed.
Kerry would never have sighed sympathetically and absolved Israeli extremists for revenge attacks on innocent Palestinians as the product of Israel’s “frustration” with the terrorism it has had to endure. Nor would any such excuse be justified. Kerry’s tepid statements about the Palestinian violence, and his excuses for it, have been not merely inane and counterproductive, but egregious.
Smug in the knowledge that it can incite terror and foment hatred with impunity, the Palestinian leadership continues to do just that. Unless the Obama administration stops encouraging this conduct, or until a new administration takes over, things are unlikely to change.