Lift the Fog on Middle East Talks

Lift the Fog on Middle East Talks

By David Ignatius - March 21, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Diplomats love ambiguity. It allows them to fuzz up the hard parts of a negotiation -- the "final status" issues, as they're often called -- and save them for later, when the parties are more amenable to pressure.

This devotion to "constructive ambiguity" has been a hallmark of U.S. peacemaking on the Palestinian-Israeli issue for the past 40 years. Rather than state the unpalatable concessions that most analysts recognize will be required for any viable settlement -- that Israelis must share sovereignty in Jerusalem and that Palestinians must give up the "right of return" to Israel -- successive U.S. administrations have tried to defer these unmentionables until later.

But the fog machine blew apart this month, when the Israeli interior ministry announced during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden that Israel would build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration was upset, to put it mildly: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the housing announcement a "deeply negative signal" about U.S.-Israeli relations and "an insult."

In the ensuing hubbub over the "crisis" in U.S.-Israeli relations, there have been frantic attempts to pretend it was all a misunderstanding, and pull the cloak of ambiguity back over the peace process. But that's a mistake.

The East Jerusalem move wasn't an accident but an emphatic public statement of the Israeli right's rejection of concessions on Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had been trying to play along with U.S. requests to fuzz the issue by avoiding provocative actions on Jerusalem. But the right-wing Shas party, which controls the Interior Ministry, basically called his bluff.

"Freezing building in East Jerusalem is one of those things we cannot do," said Dore Gold, a right-wing former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. And Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister and a settler himself, responded: "Can you imagine if they told Jews in New York they could not build or buy in Queens?"

So what should the administration do, now that the Israeli right has put Jerusalem squarely on the table despite the best efforts of the ambiguity-addicted diplomats?

The administration's best strategy is to do what it considered a year ago, which is to state clearly the basic principles that must frame these negotiations. Those guidelines have been articulated well by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser: real sharing of Jerusalem; no right of return for the Palestinians; a return to the 1967 borders, with mutual adjustments to allow for big Israeli settlement blocks; and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Every negotiation for the past four decades has converged toward those parameters.

The Obama administration debated whether to issue such a statement of principles a year ago, when it began its peacemaking effort. Launching negotiations with this "big bang" made sense to some officials, including Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser. But George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy, argued that based on his experience in the Northern Ireland peace talks, it was better to let the parties haggle before the U.S. stepped in with bridging proposals.

Rather than stating U.S. negotiating principles at the outset, the Obama team decided instead to push Netanyahu on settlements. They picked this fight in the flush of Obama's first months in office, confident that the new president was so strong and Netanyahu so weak that if it came to a showdown, Netanyahu would cave. The Israeli leader coolly bided his time, dickering about procedural issues while Obama got weaker politically by the month. Netanyahu finally agreed in November to a temporary moratorium on new settlements -- but it specifically excluded Jerusalem. The administration should have seen what was coming.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the step-by-step approach was a mistake: Constructive ambiguity, in this case, proved destructive. It allowed the Israeli right wing to perpetuate the idea that it could have it all -- obtain a peace deal without making concessions on Jerusalem. And it allowed Netanyahu to continue his straddle.

Jerusalem is the hardest issue of all in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, and for that reason, would-be peacemakers have wanted to save it for last. But this month's crisis makes that strategic waffling impossible. Thanks to the Israeli right, the Jerusalem issue is joined.

What's needed now is for Obama to announce that when negotiations begin, the U.S. will state its own views about Jerusalem and other key issues -- sketching the outlines of the deal that most Israelis and Palestinians want. If Netanyahu refuses to play, then we have a real crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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