Obama's Misplaced Missive

As the clock ticks closer toward an ignominious end to the Obama Administration's ill-conceived gambit to reconvene direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Obama appears desperate to keep the talks alive, as revealed on Wednesday in accounts of a letter he purportedly sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

To date, Netanyahu has refused to extend Israel's self-declared "moratorium" on settlement building, which expired on September 26. For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has grown increasingly assertive that he will walk away from the table with the endorsement of the Arab League if the "moratorium" is not extended by October 6.

To keep the talks going, Obama's letter to Netanyahu reportedly offers him "far-reaching" incentives if Israel agrees to a one-time 60-day extension of the settlement "moratorium," according to two remarkably similar and credible accounts published by the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv and David Makovsky, of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The White House has asserted that "No letter was sent to the Prime Minister. We are not going to comment on sensitive diplomatic matters." But as Politico's Laura Rozen plausibly speculated, this statement could be technically true but highly misleading, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have transmitted the letter, or a draft of it, to Netanyahu, thus letting the Obama Administration claim that it did not "send" it.

Whatever the case may be, the reported contents of the letter point to an Obama Administration strategically adrift and throwing good political capital down a bad hole. Both accounts of the letter offer evidence that the White House is willing to grant important concessions to Israel in exchange for the prospect of just two more months of fruitless talks, conveniently timed to avoid a major foreign policy fiasco for the President before the mid-term elections. These concessions reportedly include:

* Supplying Israel with additional sophisticated weapons systems, including additional F-35 fighter jets, missiles, missile defense systems, and satellites--all financed, of course, by U.S. taxpayers;

* Agreeing to an ongoing Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley even after Palestinian statehood is established, and stringent measures to prevent Palestinians from obtaining weapons;

* Blocking Arab countries from pushing for a declaration of Palestinian statehood in the UN Security Council; and

* Ensuring that Palestinians stop complaining in public about Israel's colonization of its land

All of these hugely important carrots that Obama is reportedly dangling in front of Netanyahu are completely out of proportion to what the United States is requesting of Israel; namely a short-term, half-hearted, and unconvincing gesture that Israel is somehow now ready to suspend its colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land and thereafter negotiate in good faith.

Even if Obama is somehow successful--perhaps by including the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, as hinted at in today's New York Times--in sweetening the deal to an extent that would allow Netanyahu to risk his governing coalition falling apart for the sake of extending the "moratorium" for two more months, if the last ten months of "moratorium" are any indication, then its extension will mean very little on the ground.

Netanyahu's original "moratorium" was so purposefully shot full of exceptions, loopholes, and caveats as to make it meaningless. Israel's colonization and ethnic cleansing of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, a project which has been ongoing for the past 43 years, continued on a pace similar to that before the self-declared "moratorium."

And--assuming, just for the sake of argumentation, that a leopard could change its spots--if Netanyahu were to honestly implement a two-month settlement freeze, should Israel be entitled to such generous rewards by the United States for doing so?

Israel's settlements are, after all, illegal both according to international law and official U.S. policy, and Obama, since the first day of his presidency, has been fairly consistent and forceful in his demand of Israel to halt settlement activity, though unwilling to apply pressure to make it happen. Grandiosely rewarding Israel for temporarily complying with international law is like a teacher giving candy to a schoolyard bully for not beating up his hapless victim on a given day. Both actions perversely incentivize more malfeasance.

Having mistakenly reconvened Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without any reference to human rights, international law, or UN resolutions, the Obama Administration is now floundering about to keep the talks alive for the sake of talking.

When asked about the slim likelihood of negotiations succeeding, Obama's "peace process" team often states that there are no good alternatives other than negotiations to achieve peace. This may be true, but negotiations also cannot be successful without the right context and good faith efforts of all involved. Rather than coddle Israel into more rounds of talks when it is so evidently not prepared to negotiate in good faith, treating Palestinians as objects to be subjugated instead of as equal human beings, the Obama Administration should let these pathetic talks die a quick death.

The sooner the farce of negotiations breaks down, the better, since such a dramatic step appears to be the only way that the Obama Administration will rethink its flawed strategy to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. Once these talks fail, Obama should take a page out of President Eisenhower's playbook, when he sanctioned Israel by cutting off all U.S. assistance in the aftermath of Israel's military occupation of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula in 1956. As Eisenhower found out, this policy tool--more than any other in his arsenal--proved most effective in making a recalcitrant Israel more pliable.

If Obama were to cut off military aid to Israel, rather than reward it with ever-increasing amounts of weaponry, until a time that Israel was prepared to negotiate in good faith with Palestinians on the basis of human rights, international law, and UN resolutions, and work with--not against--international efforts, then his prospects for brokering peace would look much brighter.

* Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.