“Diplomacy 102”: A New York Times Editorial Gets It Right

by Martin Peretz | March 11, 2010

This is apropos my last Spine.

The editorial habits of the New York Times are to utter hortatory dicta about how this should happen and that.

In this morning’s lead editorial (“Diplomacy 102”), it heuristically explains what happened to the president’s ambitions to restart direct negotiations on a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians:

President Obama seriously miscalculated last year when he insisted that Israel impose a full stop on all new settlement building ... [O]ne of the basic rules of diplomacy is that American presidents never publicly insist on something they aren’t sure of getting — at least not without a backup plan.

I don’t quite understand the last clause in my citation. But the editorial is certainly the truth and, worse yet, a truism. Still, it’s no surprise that Obama didn’t seem to understand this first principle of diplomacy or, as the Times coyly concedes, maybe the second. The Palestinians reasoned that, if the president insists that Israel make a major concession even before talks begin, they can ask for more ... and more.

After some hemming and hawing, Israel agreed to a freeze (which I believe should not have been demanded of it), though it should not have conceded because settlements are central issues in the diplomacy itself. It exempted Jerusalem from the freeze, however. Still, as the Times put it, the president and his emissary “failed to persuade Arab leaders to agree to make any gestures to Israel in return for a settlement freeze.” Then the U.S. pulled out from way back in the history of the conflict--to the '20s, '30s, '40s--another tricky concession to the Arabs, that they need not parley directly with opponents but can engage in what Washington calls “indirect” negotiations. In this formula, the antagonists will not sit in one room, but the mediator, George Mitchell, poor man, will shuttle from Jerusalem to Ramallah and back.

The Times points out near the editorial’s end that “if Israel is to make real concessions, it will need more than gestures from the Arab states.” More importantly, I would say, it will need much more than gestures from the Palestinians. And everybody will have to grasp that Israel is now not negotiating with a united Palestinian polity, what with Gaza and the Gazans ruled by Hamas. 

Alas, at the end of the editorial, the Times reverts to the habits from which it seemed to have broken at the start: “We also hope that if progress lags, the administration will be ready to put forward its own proposals on the central issues of borders, refugees, security and the future of Jerusalem.” Which would bring us back to what we have just been through. 

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