Missing from this otherwise-very good Washington Post piece about the Obama administration’s early and serious missteps on restarting Israel/Palestine peace talks is, unfortunately, the Goldstone commission on Gaza, which is relegated to a single sentence. This is the capsule version: Obama feared that Israel would freak out and foreclose on any peace talks if U.N. investigator Richard Goldstone’s report into war crimes in Gaza reached the U.N. Security Council for an endorsement. So he leaned on the Palestinian Authority leadership to get its delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council not to demand it be forwarded to the body, and, in what The New York Times called a “startling shift,” that’s exactly what happened. Given that Palestinians in Gaza still live under conditions of extreme deprivation, caught in between Hamas misgovernance and Israeli blockade, the Palestinian popular reaction was a massive loss of confidence in President Abbas’ leadership, so severe that he may not run again.
A likely consequence is that Hamas — which formally rejects a two-state solution to the conflict and with which Israel is, to put it mildly, extremely reluctant to negotiate — will benefit if next year’s scheduled elections go forward. Abbas is now polling even with Hamas’ Ismael Haniyeh for the presidency. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress continues to denounce and reject Goldstone, with little attention paid to the consequences of such a stance for the alternative to Hamas in Palestinian politics.
I asked my friend Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine for his perspective on the Obama administration’s relationship with the Palestinians — over Goldstone and beyond — and he emailed me a typically insightful and judicious reply:
I think they also showed a very profound lack of understanding about how what they were asking the PLO to do diplomatically would play out domestically in Palestine in the context of the lack of a settlement freeze and actually the lack of anything specifically concrete the PA could point to as positive benefits deriving from the PLO’s diplomatic strategy of maximum cooperation with the Obama administration. To be fair, the administration has had to balance a lot of different factors while trying to pressure both Israel and the Palestinians to come to terms when there are tremendous domestic political obstacles to either of them actually doing that.
I do think the administration understood to some extent the problem the PA found itself in because the attitude, at least in Geneva, of US representatives towards the Goldstone report softened somewhat after the uproar in Palestine and the Arab world, and I think they’ve shown some understanding of the Palestinian position. However, they seem to decided now is the time to tack towards easing pressure on Israel and turning pressure towards the Palestinians, possibly partly motivated by displeasure on Goldstone but probably more because they want the Palestinians to return to negotiations without insisting on a complete settlement freeze which they have come to understand they are not going to get out of Netanyahu. Overall, I think this administration is more sensitive to the needs of its Palestinian partners than any of its predecessors, but I think the United States in general has a long way to go in realizing how much it shapes the Palestinians it will be dealing with and how much every little detail determines who will be in power in Palestinian society. I think we are inching towards a better understanding of that, but it obviously hasn’t been fully digested yet or things would have gone somewhat differently than they have.
Hussein thinks there just won’t be elections next year. That’s how serious the consequences of this episode are — though he points out that Hamas’ unpopularity means that it won’t necessarily benefit from the damage inflicted on Abbas’ Fatah party. Yet the Goldstone debacle seems to be barely discussed in the United States, a chasm in the story the size of the political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.
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