J Street says Obama is serious (but Israeli Foreign Ministry shrugs)

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J Street and the Israeli Foreign Ministry offer contrasting reactions to the just announced Israeli-Palestinian "proximity talks" – indirect talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians with the United States serving as the go-between. By summer we should know for certain which organization has a better read of Obama Administration policies.

Isaac Luria of J Street sent out an email with the group’s key reactions to the upcoming talks. First J Street makes clear that in its view, "The announcement of proximity talks is a positive step in the right direction." Continuing its cheerleading role for the Obama administration, J Street applauds "the determination shown by the United States, President Obama and, in particular, Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell to get the parties to agree to talk."

Well, almost talk. The Americans are going to shuttle between the two sides, relaying messages and responses. Okay, I know, it sounds a little anachronistic in this age of Instant Messaging – an Israeli invention by the way – where any two people anywhere in the globe can instantly communicate with one another. But hey, it is a start, even if it takes us back full circle to the prelude before the Madrid Conference of 1991.

In case anyone is thinking of using the talks to serve as a smokescreen for maintaining the status quo, J Street is quick to emphasize that "Process and talk, while commendable, are not the goal. Achieving a two-state solution is." Let’s hope Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are on J Street’s e-mail list.

J Street avows that "The US role in this process is, to state the obvious, vital to any hopes of success," insisting that "nearly all experts know that the parties alone cannot reach an agreement." Yet, the Obama administration has so far resisted Palestinian requests that the United States announce what are its parameters for a settlement, as Clinton did in 2000.

An unidentified senior American official informed Ha’aretz:

"We told the parties that our goal is to achieve two states for two peoples through negotiations. If there are obstacles we will try to help to overcome them and to propose our own ideas, and if we think one of the parties is not meeting its obligations we will say so."

With the talks restricted to four months, it won’t take long to see if the Obama Administration is serious about taking on this "obvious" role.

Finally, J Street admonishes the parties that

"Now is the time to get serious. The stakes are enormous. There are those who believe that the United States will put no political capital behind the process and will do little to help bridge the gaps because of the upcoming Congressional elections. This view fails to recognize that the window of opportunity to achieve a viable two-state solution is nearly closed and the coming years are the last chance to secure Israel’s future as a democracy and a national home to the Jewish people." 

What J Street doesn’t mention in its email, except indirectly in a footnote, is that among those that "believe that the United States will put no political capital behind the process and will do little to help bridge the gaps because of the upcoming Congressional elections" is the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

A few days ago the Foreign Ministry leaked a classified document to its favorite conduit at Ha’aretz, Barak Ravid. The report, prepared by the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Political Research, was intended for distribution to the Foreign Minister and Israeli diplomatic missions abroad, but one has to ask the motivation for giving it to Ha’aretz.

The report concludes the following:

"The U.S. administration will not put a lot of effort into the upcoming indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, opting instead to focus on the November Congressional elections."

Washington is aware of the domestic political problems faced separately by both Netanyahu and Abbas and has decided to concentrate on achieving the limited goal of restarting the negotiations. The peace talks will not be at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda,

"In our assessment the administration will focus in the coming year on domestic issues that are expected to determine the results of the Congressional elections. As such, and due to the difficulties to date in achieving significant gains in the peace process we can assume that the administration’s focus on this issue will be limited and will predominantly remain in the hands of Mitchell’s teams."

Washington can be expected to portray the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian talks as a domestic and international achievement, in the hope of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to direct negotiations between the parties on the core issues.

"The authors of the report also predict that the administration will avoid taking any position that suggests disagreement with Israel, because of the support that Israel enjoys among both parties in Congress."

Meanwhile, J Street ended its email with "We’ll be in touch soon with concrete ways you can support strong American leadership in this latest effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution." Can’t wait.

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