...this was the problem with Obama's tough talk to Israel on settlements. Not only was the goal he laid out -- a settlements freeze including natural growth -- unattainable, but it wasn't part of a broader strategy whose dividends would have made the fight worthwhile. Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won't work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough. That a tough-talking Obama ended up backing down last year when Netanyahu said no to a comprehensive freeze tells you why.
And that remains the president's challenge after the Biden brouhaha over housing units in East Jerusalem. In the spring of 2010 we're nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we're in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again. And even if the president manages to extract something on Jerusalem, the chances that Netanyahu will be able to make a far greater move on a core issue, such as borders, will be much reduced.
So now Obama faces a conundrum. A brilliant, empathetic president, with a Nobel Peace Prize to boot, has embraced the iron triangle and made America the focal point of action and responsibility for the Arab-Israeli issue at a time when the country may be least able to do much about it.
The painful truth is that faith in America's capacity to fix the Arab-Israeli issue has always been overrated. It's certainly no coincidence that every breakthrough from the Egypt-Israel treaty to the Oslo accords to the Israel-Jordan peace agreement came initially as a consequence of secret meetings about which the United States was the last to know. Only then, once there was local ownership or some regional crisis that the United States could exploit, were we able to move things forward.
Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
That doesn't mean Obama won't try, fail and write a best selling memoir, leaving Jews and Arabs to scrape their chidren's body parts off the pavement, again.