Frameworks for disaster
Watching time run out at a dangerous pace, U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to take a more hands-on role in foreign policy. The impending peril he fears is not an Iranian atom bomb, however.
No, in spite of the Islamic Republic's refusal to halt its nuclear program, Obama is as hopeful about the latest round of talks in Vienna as is European Union negotiator Catherine Ashton.
"We had three very productive days during which we have identified all the issues we need to address to reach a comprehensive and final agreement," Ashton said last week.
This was music to White House ears. Now it could ignore Iran's about-face following its signing of an interim agreement with the West in November. Indeed, before the ink had dried on the document, Iran was denouncing Obama's interpretation of it.
Imagine the U.S. president's relief, then, that he had not caved to pressure from Congress to step up sanctions against Tehran, and that a whole new series of talks -- the first of which will take place on March 17 -- was in the cards.
What, then, is causing the American president to grab the reins out of Secretary of State John Kerry's hands with such urgency?
You guessed it -- the fast approach of the April 29 deadline, set by the U.S., for a negotiated "two-state solution" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Realizing that there is no chance of achieving such a goal within the next two months, Kerry came up with the next best thing: a "framework" for an agreement which would enable an extension of the deadline.
Ashton used that very word to describe the charade with Iran.
"We have set a timetable of meetings … with a framework to continue our deliberations," she said.
The purpose of Kerry's "framework," too, is to perpetuate a process of "deliberations."
This is all that is possible when dealing with a partner whose endgame does not bear any resemblance to one's own. It is also what enables the harboring of illusions about making progress.
But even "frameworks" have to be agreed upon by negotiating partners, no matter how far apart their positions. The Iranians have consented to a new "framework" for talks, because this buys them more time to work on their nuclear program, with an ease on sanctions.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, have not done so. And why should they? They have suffered no consequences for their intransigence. On the contrary, so far, money from the U.S. and Europe keeps flowing into their coffers, and Israel has released many of the 104 Palestinian terrorists it committed to freeing as part of a goodwill gesture to jumpstart negotiations, with a fourth bunch about to be let out of prison at the end of March.
Nor has Kerry's "framework" been met with anything but disdain on the part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who (according to a report in the Jerusalem-based Palestinian daily paper Al-Quds) called it "crazy." Apparently, this was due to Kerry's proposing, among other things, that the Beit Hanina neighborhood -- rather than east Jerusalem as a whole -- could become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been receptive to all State Department suggestions. Even those that are utterly untenable for Israel -- such as a return to the 1967 borders -- are open to discussion. Indeed, Netanyahu is taking serious flak within his own Likud party for the degree of open-mindedness with which he has been treating talks on the "core issues."
According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who gave a press conference on Thursday to explain why Obama is now directly entering the fray, these core issues are "borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, mutual recognition, an end of conflict and an end of claims."
The White House believes, he said, "that the framework will be a significant breakthrough, as it would represent a common picture on the outlines of the final status agreement."
What Carney failed to address was what would happen in the event that Israel and the PA do not agree on such a "framework." This, undoubtedly, will be the focus of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu on Monday in Washington and subsequently with Abbas on March 17 (coincidentally the date of the next round of U.S. and EU talks with Tehran in Vienna.)
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has one thing on his agenda: preventing a nuclear Iran by any means necessary. It is a safe bet that this will be the highlight of his speech on Tuesday at the annual AIPAC conference. Unfortunately, though, Obama is more concerned about extending the deadline for Middle East "peace," a euphemism for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
As an anonymous American official told The New York Times on Wednesday, "Now is a very timely opportunity for [Obama] to get involved. … The president wouldn't want to run any risk that it was the lack of his involvement that would make the difference between success and failure."
This is very bad news. Whenever Netanyahu impresses upon Obama the urgency of stopping Iran before it's too late, the U.S. president responds by pressuring him into promises of appeasement, if not concrete concessions.
It is a framework for disaster.
Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"