Four months after President Obama announced a yearlong timeline for Mideast peace, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton admitted initial defeat. In a Friday speech, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged permanent breakdown in direct negotiations the Obama administration had predicted would lead to an agreement by September 2011. "Unfortunately, as we have learned," she said, "the parties in this conflict have often not been ready to take the necessary steps." This only comes as a surprise to the Obama team.
The Obama administration began its quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with "proximity" talks, which were followed by the much heralded "direct" talks - which collapsed in three weeks. Now the two sides have retreated to "parallel" talks, which is one step from no talks at all. The new approach was made necessary by the failure of the old approach, which broke down when Israel reached the agreed-upon end of its moratorium on new construction in areas claimed by Palestinians.
Mrs. Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for seven hours last month trying to agree on terms for a three-month extension, which included giving Israel 20 F-35 stealth fighters worth $2.7 billion. These aircraft don't exist yet, and the deal wasn't in writing, facts that undermined the attractiveness of the bargain. It wasn't such a great deal from the U.S. perspective, either, because it would only buy a three-month extension at $30 million a day with no guarantee the two parties wouldn't be back at square one at the end of it.
Under the new framework, the Obama administration will pressure both sides to come to grips with their core differences over water, refugees, the border issue and Jerusalem. Washington has said any agreement must contain "internationally recognized borders that protect Israel's security," which is code for saying Israel won't be bound by the 1967 border. This is a deal breaker for Palestinians. The notion of dividing Jerusalem was mentioned favorably by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak - appearing at the same event as Mrs. Clinton - but was swiftly disavowed by Mr. Netanyahu as a deal breaker for Israel. "When one way is blocked, we will seek another," Mrs. Clinton gamely promised, though she offered no ideas that haven't failed already.
Last week, the Palestinian Authority was emboldened by gaining diplomatic recognition from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; 104 states now recognize the PA. The ruling Fatah Party is reportedly planning to end all security cooperation with Israel and abrogate all commitments under the mid-1990s Oslo Accords, undoing President Clinton's signal achievements. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement in the European Union and the United Nations to impose a peace deal that would favor Palestinians.
In a bizarre twist, Mutawakel Taha of the PA's Ministry of Information said last week that the Western or "Wailing" Wall on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem actually was built by Muslims and has no connection to King Solomon or Judaism. If the two sides cannot even agree on the basic nature of reality, Mr. Obama will be lucky to reach September 2011 without open warfare, much less with a permanent Mideast peace agreement.
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