US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated yesterday that both Israel and the Palestinians have taken "unhelpful steps" during the peace efforts that have been a pillar of Secretary of State John Kerry's foreign policy. Israel's withdrawal from the talks, much to the delight of Washington's cynical pundit corps, was predictable. But there is another party which has taken unhelpful steps: the Obama White House.
The President has taken a hands-off approach to much of foreign policy, but particularly the peace negotiations. While John Kerry has been as effective a mediator as any one person can be, he has lacked consistent support from the administration. Today's statement by President Obama that both Israel and the Palestinians need a "pause" in their negotiations is an affirmation of the status quo - exactly what the negotiations are intended to change. Without pressure from the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas face little short-term sanction for "defecting" from peace negotiations.
True, the odds of an agreement were long. And perhaps the White House's avoidance is an attempt to cut its political losses. But given that the negotiations were a major initiative by the Secretary of State, this policy is inconsistent at best. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not anti-peace, they are simply reacting to short-term incentives. But it is only by using the office of the Presidency to alter these incentives that there can be any hope of alleviating the suffering of the Israelis and Palestinians who have no option to withdraw.