The price tag for Israeli intransigence

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The day before Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel — supposedly on a mission to help kick-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians — the Netanyahu government made its contempt for the Obama administration clear by approving new settlement construction.

They were quick to take offense — they being the Israelis!

“While we welcome Vice President Biden, a longtime friend and supporter of Israel,” Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, told the Washington Post, “we see it as nothing short of an insult that President Obama himself is not coming.”

Washington on the other hand had no interest in creating a fuss about settlement growth — its impotence on that particular issue has already been amply demonstrated. Pushing for a real settlement freeze is passé. The new game is proximity talks and shuttle diplomacy.

After 17 years of direct talks it’s now time to talk from a distance and have George Mitchell like an Energizer bunny going back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Irrespective of how much life there might be in his batteries, the Arab League has thankfully imposed a four-month deadline on this charade.

If the latest “initiative” seems like an exercise in atmospherics, an Israeli official was straightforward enough to confirm the fact when he told Ynet that resuming talks with the Palestinians “would create an atmosphere in the Arab world and the international community that would allow the world to focus on the real threat – Iran.”

George Mitchell is going to allow the Israelis to talk to the Palestinians so that the world can focus on Iran.

It’s not a novel idea. It came up three-and-a-half years ago in Washington when Philip Zelikow, Special Counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, caused a stir by making a similar linkage between the threat from Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The controversy in Zelikow’s suggestion was that it hinted that the Bush administration might defy Tel Aviv and remove the peace process from its preservative, but Zelikow’s concern was the same as that of the Israelis now: how to mount pressure on Iran. This depended, he said, on strengthening an anti-Iran coalition.

What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed, that they see a common determination to sustain an active policy that tries to deal with the problems of Israel and the Palestinians. We don’t want this issue … [to] have the real corrosive effects that it has, or the symbolic corrosive effects that it causes in undermining some of the friends we need [as] friends to confront some of the serious dangers we must face together.

Note that Zelikow was not pushing for anything so grand as a resolution to the conflict, merely that an effort be made to create “a sense” that the issues were being addressed.

Initiatives, summits, and dark-suited earnestness with a liberal sprinkling of handshakes — we all know the routine. “What will they ask Israel to do? Meet with Abu Mazen? – so you’ll meet with Abu Mazen,” one Washington hand told Haaretz at the time.

That was 2006. Now in 2010 the Israelis don’t even need to inconvenience themselves by sitting in the same room as the Palestinians, even though Netanyahu would be happy to be granted the photo-op of face-to-face talks — talks that he can be confident will be fruitless.

The anti-Iran coalition might still be rather shaky but there is another coalition that has proved to be durable and near universal: the coalition of states who remain content to pay lip-service to the Palestinian issue; the political leaders who gladly shake hands with Mahmoud Abbas as though having Ramallah’s jaded political leaders received in global capitals was all the Palestinians could ever have aspired for.

But when it comes to dealing with the Israelis no one has a better understanding than the Israelis themselves. Jewish settlers in the West Bank insist that if they are uprooted, others will be forced to pay the “price tag.”

President Obama on the other hand insists that for Israel “the status quo is unsustainable” but neither he nor any of the other political leaders who profess some level of concern for the Palestinians have been willing to exact a price for Israeli intransigence. Until a price tag is applied effectively, Israel can remain confident in the durability of the status quo.

This is a cross-post from Woodward’s site, War in Context.

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