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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Secretary Clinton damages Middle East peace prospects

Credit: Douglas
Credit: Douglas

If you’ve read a newspaper in the past 30 years, you’ve probably heard about trouble in the Middle East. In fact, you may have read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict enough that you’ve entirely dismissed it. But it’s still going on, and the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are still trying to reach a solution.

Over the past two weeks, the Obama administration’s mistakes have taken the peace process a step backwards.

On a recent diplomatic trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to use her political star power to jump-start the peace process. On her trip, she declared that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories should not be an obstacle to peace talks.

Israeli settlements are civilian communities in occupied Palestinian territories. Settlements have long been considered illegal under international law, and have been denounced by the United Nations General Assembly (against American wishes) and by the International Court of Justice.

This spring, the Obama administration declared that Israel must stop building settlements in Palestinian areas before returning to the bargaining table. President Obama’s stance was significantly tougher than President Bush’s.

However, Clinton seemed to reverse the Obama administration’s previous statements. Secretary Clinton praised an Israeli proposal to curb: but not halt: settlement expansion as an unprecedented step in the peace process. Unsurprisingly, Secretary Clinton’s remarks aroused the ire of Arab leaders, turning the last few days of her goodwill tour chilly.

Secretary Clinton attempted to erase her misstep by clarifying that the United States still opposes Israeli settlements, but the damage had been done. Secretary Clinton’s remarks have backed the administration into a corner: It can’t repudiate her praise for Israel’s “unprecedented steps” without angering the Israeli government, and the administration has already lost support among moderates such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

During the first few months of his administration, Obama made securing a peace deal in the Middle East a top priority. After fighting a tough domestic battle for health care reform, Obama has little political capital to spend on the Middle East.

So what can the administration do?

Although overshadowed domestically by health care and abroad by Iran’s cantankerous nuclear program, brokering a peace deal in the Middle East is still important. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are increasingly reluctant to sit down at the bargaining table.

The Obama administration should clearly declare that Israeli settlements are an insurmountable barrier to the peace process, and demand that Israel prevent their expansion. Just as importantly, the administration should be consistent. As tensions between Israel and the Palestinians remain high, the Obama administration cannot afford to send mixed messages.

Secretary Clinton may have been right to back away from demanding that Israel stop expanding settlements before returning to the bargaining table. But she should have been clear that Israel’s current plan is not enough.

Secretary Clinton failed to dazzle with her political star power, and her goodwill tour ended up alienating Arab governments. Without the support of moderate Arab leaders, peace in the Middle East looks as distant as ever.

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    GaryNov 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    I think the Obama administration’s plan for middle east peace wasn’t working well initially. I mean the demand for an unconditional halt to the settlement building process is well intentioned and accords with international law. However, if you define unconditional halt as including natural growth instances, ie where existing settlements grow in population naturally, ie births, then it seems like a total settlement freeze is politically unpalatable. The issue is that the domestic politics in Israel that determine if Netanyahu is still in power has reacted extremely harshly to a total settlement freeze. Indeed, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman lives in the settlements.

    Additionally, if the Obama administration wants to really take a hardline on Israel, it cannot demand a unilateral halt to israeli settlements while not pursuing the same level of effort to put pressure on the PLO. I think Clinton’s slip, while unfortunate, still contains some truth. I mean, the Israelis have already agreed to a temporary settlement halt and that’s a sign of improvement. Intransigence with Saudi Arabia and other nations in the middle east over recognizing israeli statehood poses a problem that Israel compromises over settlements don’t touch.