Obama's 'Lost Year' in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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JERUSALEM, Israel - President Barack Obama's attempts to push the Israeli-Palestinian political process forward by pressuring Israel during his first year in office were based on wrong assessments, making his first year a "lost year," a former Israeli chief negotiator said Monday.

Many Israelis believe the Obama administration has been the least pro-Israel American administration in decades. Recent friction between Israel and the U.S. over Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem as well as Obama's apparent slight of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit have added to that perception.

Many right-wing activists have accused Obama of taking the Palestinian side against Israel. But Gilad Sher, a former chief of staff and policy coordinator for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, also said current U.S. pressure on Israel has been wrong.

During a meeting of foreign journalists in Jerusalem, Sher was asked whether he thought the pressure the American administration is putting on Israel is helpful or wrong.

Initially the pressure was "lousily put together" because of the "wrong direction the administration took," Sher said.

According to Sher, the U.S. administration did not assess "in the right way, the correct way what should be done during the first year of Obama's tenure here."

Sher pointed to the fact that there was only one "photo-op" of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu together. There were no American-sponsored meetings.

"This is due, I think, to the wrong direction that the administration took," he said.

In contrast, Sher said the Obama administration has not pressured the Palestinian Authority. But it did pressure Netanyahu to say "the right words" during a major foreign policy speech last June. The administration has also tried to impose a complete building freeze on construction in the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) and Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, where Palestinians want the capital of a future Palestinian state, he said.

"If you do not differentiate between putting pressure on both parties in order to get back to the negotiation room and to have some kind of dialogue between them, and the kind of pressure that you put on one party or the other in order to obtain political support of the international community or Congress or whatever, then you're not assessing the situation correctly," Sher said.

"If you don't differentiate between blocs of settlements and those neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under no circumstances would be part of the Palestinian state, and the other areas in which a freeze of settlement would be acceptable because those are isolated settlements…that are not going to be, to form part of the state of Israel, then you're wrong again," Sher said.

Netanyahu imposed a 10-month building limited freeze on some settlements in Judea and Samaria but has not agreed to halt building in Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

"So I think that the first year of the Obama administration that coincided almost with the first year of the Netanyahu government is a lost year," Sher said.

*Originally published April 27, 2010.

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Julie Stahl

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