On Sunday our delegation met with Bishr Khasawneh, the chief of staff of the Foreign Ministry in Jordan. It is clear from what he told us that Jordan, a U.S. ally and one of the so-called Arab moderates, is beginning to worry about recent changes in President Barack Obama’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Khasawneh argued that the president had started his first year in office on particularly strong footing. Obama signaled his commitment to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict by naming George Mitchell as his envoy for Middle East peace within 24 hours of taking office. He also made speeches, in Turkey and Cairo, that emphasized two points that Bush administration policy had ignored: 1) the critical importance of implementing a two-state solution and 2) the regional context of the conflict.
The need for a change in American policy is overdue, he said, after “good faith and confidence have eroded over eight years of stagnation” in the peace process. The Arab side has demonstrated its willingness to make peace with Israel and give it the legitimacy it deserves, by continuing to support the Arab Peace Initiative for the last seven of those years. Even after the Gaza war had such a deep, negative psychological impact on the region, all 22 Arab states and 57 Muslim states kept it on the table at the Doha summit in March. The time is ripe for American leadership.
Khasawneh said that the Obama administration had chosen the right issue, settlements, on which to challenge Israel and move the process forward. Jewish settlements, he said, had made the Palestinian portions of the West Bank into “isolated cantons.” Allowing their continued expansion while pressing for negotiations made no sense. Gesturing to the cup of coffee on the table, he argued that one person cannot negotiate with another over dividing a cup of coffee while one person continues to drink from the cup.
The new Obama position seems to be to push for final status talks despite allowing Israel to continue building settlements. Khasawneh argued that the administration appears ready to include enough loopholes in the proposed settlement “freeze” as to make the agreement meaningless. Israel is fighting with the U.S. over which loopholes should be included, as though the freeze is a negotiable concession to the Palestinians. Instead, Khasawneh argued, Israel should agree to implement a settlement freeze as a way of finally giving a positive response to the Arab Peace Initiative.
The key for Obama is to regain the momentum that he helped generate in the beginning of his first year by continuing to demonstrate his leadership on the settlement issue and breaking with the policies of his predecessor. Khasawneh suggested he can do that by promoting the Arab Peace Initiative as one basis for negotiations and by refusing to allow settlement expansion to continue at the same time that he calls for final status negotiations.