After much anticipation of this week's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, early reports indicate that President Obama spent most of his time "sternly urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do more to make Mideast peace talks possible." It's an unimpressive message from a president that has been urging the sides "to do more" for quite a while now, to no avail. Israel has refused the "total settlement freeze" that U.S. officials were demanding, Palestinians have rebuffed all attempts to bring them back to the negotiating table, and Arab leaders have shown no real interest in contributing "gestures" to move the process along.
In some ways, Obama repeated today some of the mistakes that have spoiled his efforts thus far. For no obvious reason--and clearly irritated by both Netanyahu and Abbas--the president had summoned the sides to this mini-summit and lectured them like rebellious children. No statement was agreed on, so he made one on his own. He demanded final status negotiations, despite the Israeli government's belief that interim agreements and gradual progress better fit the current situation. He showed little sympathy for Abbas' reluctance to negotiate, despite the fact that Abbas couldn't even attend this meaningless meeting without being subjected to a barrage of criticism at home. (The best advice may have come from a Hamas spokesman I heard on Israeli radio this week, who suggested that Abbas meet with the group's leader, Khalid Mishal, to stem the internal Palestinian conflict before even thinking about peace with Israel.)
But beneath the seemingly empty demands and banal pronouncements, a lot can be read into Obama's short statement. He said Israelis should "restrain" settlements, not "freeze" them--a distinct change in rhetoric from the past few months. He said "permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon"--but was careful enough not to commit to a time table, as he did not long ago. Gone is Hillary Clinton's cocky denial of any previous agreements between Israel and the United States regarding natural growth of settlements. A more subtle, humble approach carried the day. The president admitted that "it is past time to talk about starting negotiations," which is exactly what his special envoy, George Mitchell, will be doing next week when he continues the exhaustive work of negotiating over the start of negotiations.
Israel should restrain itself from declaring victory just yet. True, Obama had to draw down his overeager demands from Israel. But it is also true that Netanyahu, not long ago, had to reverse his opposition to a two-state-solution and publicly declare that his goal is similar to the one espoused today by Obama. True, Abbas was dragged to the summit only days after insisting that he will not come to any meeting unless settlement construction is frozen first. But it is also true that Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing Likud Party, is one of the first Israeli prime ministers to agree to some form of settlement freeze.
When Obama said today that "flexibility, common sense and sense ofcompromise … [are] necessary to achieve our goals," he failed to recognize that we've already seen a lot of it in recent months. It may not be going as smoothly as he had hoped. But not very long ago, in Cairo, a smart President Obama had said, "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace." Today, finally, he seemed to internalize his own message.