The head of the Palestinian Authority verbally smacked down the president of the United States, and the White House responded with a conciliatory note. Welcome to President Obama's more flexible second term.
Shortly after his Nov. 6 victory, Mr. Obama telephoned Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the Palestinians' drive for U.N. recognition as a nonmember observer, the functional equivalent of statehood. Mr. Obama asked Mr. Abbas to back down from this policy. The Palestinian response was succinct: "No."
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said that after the sharp phone exchange, the White House issued a "conciliatory statement" that reiterated the U.S. policy stance and "reaffirmed [Mr. Obama's] commitment to Middle East peace and his strong support for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the objective of two states living side by side in peace and security."
Palestinians have been pushing for U.N. recognition for more than a year. They see it as a means of bringing increased diplomatic pressure on Israel to resume negotiations on a settlement of their border dispute and security issues. The United States consistently has seen this as unnecessarily provocative and unlikely to bring the two parties back to the table.
Perhaps the White House thought Mr. Obama would have more influence over events after his re-election. It looks instead as if the president is further diminished. All the key global players know him and his limitations. His first-term attempts to broker a Mideast peace deal fell flat. The administration had no follow-on plan to repair the breach after bilateral talks failed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clearly not swayed by Mr. Obama or his policies, and Mr. Abbas seems to feel he has nothing to lose by disregarding American overtures.
Mr. Obama has yet to lay out a specific second-term plan for the Middle East peace process. Mr. Obama might have used his symbolic first postelection phone call to Mr. Abbas to float a new approach. He should have at least tried to engage the Palestinians using an appeal that they had not already rejected many times before.
Having tried this approach and been strongly rebuffed, the proper response is not conciliation. Mr. Obama has not been known for showing much backbone in international affairs, but he could take the opportunity of a second term to set a new tone. His instinct when faced with strong foreign leaders is to bow and concede. His visceral view of the United States as a historic global bully forces him to seek to make amends whenever possible.
The fruits of that approach are sadly evident. U.S. interests are retreating across the globe. The world is becoming a poorer, less stable and more dangerous place. America's allies are wary of the growing leadership vacuum, and our adversaries wait to exploit an expanding menu of opportunities. At some point, Mr. Obama must show some fortitude. If he can't get what he wants from the leader of a small, poor and altogether pitiable non-country, how will he fare when the issues are more serious and America's adversaries across the table are simply waiting for him to bow again?
The Washington Times
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