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by Sharmine Narwani

Nothing to say - Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas

After a year of grandiose declarations on Mideast peace prospects and a gazillion trips to the region by US Envoy George Mitchell, the Obama administration has come up with this?

“Proximity Talks.” Look it up in the Dictionary of Realpolitik and you will find the following: “Negotiations going nowhere fast. Wear seatbelts lest the speed of self-destruction spins you off the earth’s axis.”

Palestinians and Israelis are not even going to be at the table together. Mitchell could not even make that happen. This isn’t phase one of a longstanding conflict. These are adversaries who have sat across many tables and struck many agreements over the past 19 years.

And so this is where we are in the gruelingly endless Middle East peace process. About a dozen steps back from where we started.

False Starts

Here’s the down-low. After an upbeat set of promises to bring old foes to the Mideast negotiating table, Obama realized that Israel would not move so much as an inch on freezing illegal settlement-building activity — a fundamental necessity since there can be no land-for-peace agreement without land to cede.

The Obama presidency began just days after Israel’s three-week military devastation of Gaza concluded, putting not even the most sycophantic of Palestinian leaders in a position to be generous without a significant Israeli goodwill gesture. Then Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious from Israeli national elections and the die was cast.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party has never accepted a Two-State Solution, and Obama wasted much time wresting a luke-warm endorsement of this plan from the new Israeli prime minister. But while Netanyahu’s “compromise” was lauded by US officials and media pundits, the fact is that Mideast observers knew there was nothing new in his for-the-cameras acceptance of a Palestinian state minus sovereignty.

On the other side of the fence, the increasingly unpopular Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) government — as corrupt and ineffectual as our Arab allies come — desperately needed an active peace process to give it a veneer of respectability. Fatah’s credibility is in serious jeopardy — it pushed for participation in peace talks with Israel almost two decades ago at the Madrid Peace Conference — and has virtually nothing to show for it.

Well, except for the fact that Jewish settlers in the West Bank have quintupled in number and that Israel has managed to divide up the West Bank to its advantage, with Jewish-only roads and checkpoints cutting off Palestinian movement and freedoms further.

But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was unable to participate in post-Gaza peace talks without a settlement halt — he had drawn that line in the sand after Obama offered up a settlement freeze as part of his fantasy-based approach to peacemaking.

Eureka!

So, as Israel continued to announce new settlement projects and evict Palestinians in hotly-contested Jerusalem from their homes, Abbas and Obama looked desperately for a way to hang on to credibility and launch talks in some form.

And then the brilliant idea struck. Why, if we can’t talk to Israel directly because of its flagrant violations of international principles and laws, let’s just have the Americans do it for us. And this way, if anything goes wrong and our popularity suffers, we have plausible deniability and can blame it all on the US.

The Proximity Talks were thus born. Presumably that means “talks that are close, but not too close.”

And the absurdity continues. US Vice President Joe Biden, during his visit to Israel on Monday said: “If the talks develop, we believe that we’ll be able to bridge the gaps and that the conflict will be ended.”

Really? Two decades of talks between Palestinians and Israelis when the players were far more motivated to deliver a solution — and now — Biden believes the conflict will be “ended.”

One-Way Street To Irrelevance

Here’s what I think is actually happening:

I think Obama is realigning his peacemaking priorities in the Middle East — at least until he has the US economy, health care reform and Iraq under his belt — a must if he wants to be re-elected in 2012. For both domestic and international public consumption, he cannot accept complete failure in such a visibly-touted part of his global agenda. There must be talks in some form, but they will be placed on a low burner, increasing the risk of more of the same endless “process without peace” that the US has sponsored since 1991.

Instead, Obama is placing his bets on Iran to bring him home a foreign policy “victory” — contradicting his earlier claims that Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution should be tackled first, as this will diffuse Iran’s grandstanding and reduce its regional influence.

The US’s Mideast allies have to be dealt with in the meantime. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is getting testy watching Iran’s ascendency in the Persian Gulf, and is champing at the bit to halt this trend. The Saudi King is the proud benefactor of the Arab Peace Plan and he would like to see it advanced. As would Egypt — facing key elections in 2011 and suffering from regional criticism for its own blockade of Gaza. In return for Saudi and Egyptian cooperation on isolating Iran further – and financial/political help in Afghanistan and Iraq — the US will push forward its half-baked peace process and try to keep the wheels grinding as long as humanly possible.

In the meantime, the entire US “Camp” is doing all it can to retain the status quo in the Mideast. It isn’t just Iran that threatens. The rising popularity of a bloc of nations, leaders and groups that challenges US, Israeli, Saudi and Egyptian hegemony in the region just keeps growing. The Arab and Muslim Street is with the new bloc — decades of corruption, occupation and stagnation have seen to that.

And here we are, just la-la-la plodding along, ignoring facts and realities in a quick-changing landscape. We are not the economic and military power of yesteryear — protracted, unwinnable battles in tribal Afghanistan and splintered Iraq demonstrate that we can not even win an elementary victory in the Mideast.

We listen to political decision makers — not area experts who can clue us in — and advance forward as though nothing has changed, as though we are the only player that counts. We decide who plays with us — not the democratically-elected Hezbollah and Hamas whose critical part in any feasible and long lasting Mideast solution we still refuse to acknowledge.

We vilify Iran and others who threaten our view of things, not realizing that this opposition emerges because of our blinkered behaviors and double standards in a region straining to discover its own identity and set wrongs right.

Double standards have destroyed any credibility we have in the region. We resist international demands that Israel and its 300 nuclear warheads join the IAEA, but censure the longstanding IAEA member, Iran, from pursuing a nuclear energy program. We back some of the most despicable dictatorships in the Arab world and then undermine the electoral victories of those we oppose. We send troops and funding to rein in Salafi jihadists throughout the region without a backward glance at the most intolerant nation of them all, our ally Saudi Arabia, the very source of radical militancy. And we don’t even offer an apology for the wrongful deaths of hundreds of thousands of their civilians in our zealous attempts to avenge the deaths of 2,750 of ours.

And now we are hosting the Theater of the Absurd — these so-called proximity talks — where there are no actors, just us, sitting in a room alone, talking to ourselves. We have fooled them all! Or have we?

First published on March 9, 2010 at the Huffington Post.

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