Opinion: Obama to blame for breakdown of Mideast talks?

PALO ALTO — The world is blaming Benjamin Netanyahu for the collapse of the latest Middle East peace talks. And, yes, the Israeli prime minister holds the lion’s share of responsibility.

His refusal to renew the 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction is leaving the Palestinians with no choice, they say, but to “postpone” the negotiations.

If Netanyahu had continued the settlement moratorium, as the world was demanding, his far-right governing coalition probably would have collapsed. But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted in an editorial this week that, even now, he can drop his right-wing partners and form a new coalition with the center and left. After all, not long ago, the prime minister promised to reach “an historic peace agreement” within the next year.

While I’m not trying to let Netanyahu off the hook, another major political figure shares that stage: President Barack Obama. Since almost the day he took office, Obama has berated Israel, demanding that it stop building settlements. Speaking in Cairo last year, he declared: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. The construction violates previous agreements.”

He and his staff kept up the pressure month after month. Soon, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, took settlements up as his issue, too. After all, isn’t the U.S. Israel’s patron state? Palestinians have been upset about settlements since the first one was built in 1967. But settlements have not been the major issue in peace talks — until now. During the 2000 talks, they were important but peripheral.

When Obama made them his number one priority, he showed dangerous naivete. He should have known that presidents have been railing about settlements since Lyndon Johnson held office, to no useful effect.

Just after Israel built its first settlement in September 1967, the State Department protested, saying the construction was “inconsistent” with peace negotiations and violated international law. Israel argued that the buildings were simply a temporary military outpost. Well, the “temporary outpost” is still there, part of a settlement bloc with a population of about 50,000.

A few months after Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to freeze new settlement growth, the government authorized three new settlements — a large number back then. When Washington objected, Israel told Carter that one of them was actually an archeological excavation. But the “archeologists” told reporters they had no intention of leaving.

Soon after Ronald Reagan took office, he declared: “The most significant action Israel could take to demonstrate good faith would be a settlement freeze.” Israel publicly refused, and within weeks, reporters discovered that settlers were putting up even more new West Bank homes, in defiance of the president's request. The White House expressed irritation, and the matter passed.

President George H.W. Bush made settlement expansion his signature issue with Israel. At that time, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews were immigrating to Israel, and Jerusalem asked Washington for a $10-billion loan guarantee for new housing.

Bush said repeatedly that Israel would not get the money until it froze settlements. But the prime minister then, Yitzhak Shamir, didn't seem troubled.

“Settlement in every part of the country continues and will continue,” Shamir told me with his characteristic nonchalant shrug. “They try to link the two things, but no one said aid will end. I don't think it will happen.”

And he was right. Bush finally relented, late in his 1992 re-election campaign, when the president saw he had so angered American Jews and their political allies that he might lose the election. And, of course, he did.

Soon after President Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, he cut the housing-loan guarantee by almost 25 percent — because Israel was once again refusing to halt new settlement construction. By then, 112,000 Israeli Jews lived in the West Bank. After the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, Israel more or less stopped building new settlements for a short while, but aggressively expanded existing ones.

President George W. Bush, chastened by his father's loss to Clinton in 1992, chose not to make much of the settlement issue. The White House said settlements were “unhelpful,” and its so-called road map for peace called for a settlement freeze. But when Bush took office, 177,000 Israeli Jews lived in the West Bank. When he left, the number approached 300,000.

Now, because of settlements, the peace talks are moribund. Netanayahu still has time to change his mind before the Arab League meets on Friday and almost certainly ratifies the Palestinians’ decision to end the negotiations.

After that, I can’t see how the two sides can talk about peace again in the foreseeable future.