3Then, when the administration finally succeeded inextracting an Israeli commitment to a ten-month partialsettlement construction freeze, it failed to impress uponthe Palestinian side the need to make the most of thisperiod by engaging the Israelis in serious and continuousdirect talks. As a result, much of this period was wasted.Four other dimensions of the Obama administration’sefforts to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough also proved highly problematic. First, the administration did notmake a serious attempt to rally support from withinthe American Jewish community, or at least to diminishpotential opposition to its approach in that communityand among its allies in Congress. Instead, it relied on thearticulation of its position in presidential speeches tocreate the pressure required to move the parties along.Second, brilliant speechmaking became a substitutefor establishing policy and devising strategy. Whilemasterfully articulating his understanding of Arab-Israeli realities, Obama’s speeches rarely provided or werefollowed up by an action plan incorporating practical stepsthat would enable the U.S. to achieve the administration’sstated objectives. Indeed, the administration seemed tohave lacked any strategy for moving the parties to wherethey did not volunteer to go or motivating them to assumerisks they were not prepared to take.Third, in a number of cases, President Obamaunnecessarily attached deadlines and time frames to hisgoals and aspirations for Arab-Israeli peace. For example,when launching direct Palestinian-Israeli talks in August–September 2010, the President declared his expectationthat the parties would reach an agreement within twelvemonths, to be implemented over ten years.
It was not clearwhy the President thought he could achieve within a yearwhat had eluded his predecessors for over four decades.And not surprisingly, when these deadlines were not metwithin their predicted time frames, U.S. credibility wasfurther eroded.Fourth, while repeatedly emphasizing his commitment toIsrael’s safety and security—and, in fact, translating thiscommitment into even closer U.S.–Israel defense ties—President Obama’s style and conduct often bred doubtsabout this commitment. Obama’s failure to address theIsraeli public directly—though he addressed the Muslimand Arab public in Ankara in April 2009, in Cairo in June2009, and at the State Department in May 2010—was amistake, because it encouraged speculation that while hewas deeply concerned about the views of Muslims and Arabs, the President was “taking Israelis for granted.”Moreover, by failing to address Israelis directly, Obamamissed a golden opportunity to place the requested Israeliconcessions in the context of shared U.S.–Israeli strategicinterest in creating a regional environment conducive tocontaining Iran.Above all, the Obama administration failed to exerciseleverage, or to extract penalties for ignoring America’spriorities. Senator Mitchell’s unending talks with thecontending parties proved futile because they were notaccompanied by any attempt to utilize leverage in orderto extract the desired responses. In some measure thiswas associated with Obama’s failure to convince Israeliand Palestinian leaders that both Mitchell and Secretaryof State Hillary Clinton were speaking on his behalf, inexactly the same manner that Secretary of State Kissingerwas perceived as speaking on behalf of Presidents Nixonand Ford. But even more fatal was Obama’s failure toextract any costs from leaders who defied his directappeals. Thus, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas could rightlyexpect to pay any penalty for their repeated refusals toaccommodate the United States.
In some ways, the manner in which PA President and PLOChairman Mahmoud Abbas conducted himself during thisperiod was the most puzzling of that of any of the majoractors in this failed diplomatic saga. While Americanscould legitimately debate whether their governmentshould invest time and energy in attempting to resolvethe Palestinian-Israeli dispute, it would seem that thePalestinians should have had no greater strategic objectiveand no higher priority than ending Israel’s siege of Gazaand its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.Accordingly, it would seem that Abbas could have made nogreater mistake than to present conditions for Palestiniansbeing willing to engage Israel in negotiations aimed atachieving these goals.Abbas’s skepticism as to whether any breakthrough could be achieved in negotiations with arguably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history was understandable.Having made so little progress in Palestinian-Israelipeacemaking during Netanyahu’s first term, thePalestinians could reasonably assume that it was noweven less likely that talks with Israel would yield anythingmeaningful—because in 2005 the more moderate and pragmatic among Likud leaders and activists had left theirparty to join Ariel Sharon in creating the then new Kadimaparty. Under such circumstances, Abbas rightly feared that negotiations would simply provide cover for Israel’scontinuing to unilaterally establish “facts on the ground,”particularly through settlement construction.