Hillary & the Settlements Snafu

Posted on September 21, 2009 In Blog

President Obama’s team has been struggling for months now to exit the “rabbit hole” they went down in their dispute with Israel over a “settlements freeze.”

Tomorrow’s meeting in New York — between President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas — will most likely be presented as a “fresh start” to go along with the photo-op.

But for those wondering how the Obama Administration could have gotten itself stuck in this morass (by its own terms: Obama’s goal is to get peace talks underway, and they have spent months arguing about getting into talks, rather than talking), a report over the weekend points the finger at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In what first appears as a traditional “puff piece” in Saturday’s Washington Post, Glenn Kessler writes:

In an interview with al-Jazeera in May, Clinton said about Israel: “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth — any kind of settlement activity.” Some experts have questioned whether the position should have remained private, since it led to such a breach in relations with Israel.

Mitchell, who in public has refused to utter the phrase “natural growth,” the Israeli term for the incremental expansion of settlements, defends her comment as “consistent with policy.” He said: “One of the reasons she is so effective is because she is so direct. She is able to state in simple terms complicated issues.”

Clinton, in the interview, said she was trying to get the negotiations going by setting a bright line in the sand. “It’s been against the backdrop of that very strong statement that we’ve been moving,” she said, vowing that “we will end up in a place that no Israeli government has ever gone before.”

Jones suggested that she might have jumped the gun. “There are some adjustments in the first few months to your environment,” he said. Indeed, when Obama met with Jewish leaders in July and was asked about a perceived imbalance toward Israel, he responded: “We have been trying not to do this through the press, and other than my comment to the prime minister and a couple by Hillary, we have been disciplined,” according to the contemporaneous notes of one participant.

One can assume that Mrs. Clinton’s public statement was in sync with what Obama officials were saying to Israelis behind closed doors, and that she was not off-message on substance. But by making the absolutist statement on the al-Jazeera interview, the Secretary raised Arab expectations sky-high and dramatically limited the Obama team’s flexibility in negotiations.

The timing of this report and the President’s subtler tone in his Rosh Hashanah message in the lead up to tomorrow’s three-way meeting in New York suggests that President Obama’s team is looking to start a new phase of his Administration’s policy toward Israel and the peace process. They are groping toward the exit from Hillary’s rabbit hole.