Is President Obama Abandoning the Palestinian Cause?

Never mind his flip-flop on tax cuts for the rich. Obama's recent about-face on Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank could have serious consequences for the peace process. Has a belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu defanged the president?

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Much has been made of President Obama's recent tax-cut backtrack, but the most disheartening White House move actually played out far away from Capitol Hill. Buried within the news cycle was the announcement that the United States would no longer press Israel to stop West Bank settlement construction as a precondition for continued peace-process negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. 

This disappointment is yet another about-face for an administration that -- both home and abroad -- is displaying a worrying creep toward official two-facedness. Ushered into office amid promises of an Arab-world rapprochement, Obama repeatedly insisted that ending settlement expansion would be a cornerstone of his Israeli-Palestinian policy. Yet barely 18 months after his monumental Cairo reconciliation speech, President Obama has caved in to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line hardheadedness.

Indeed, despite more than 30 years of U.S. settlement policy on his side and signs that previous settlement "freezes" helped reboot peace talks, Obama appears to be abandoning the Palestinian cause while prostrating himself before a rude, recalcitrant -- and increasingly rogue -- Netanyahu government. More worrisome, Obama does so at the very moment Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas needs him most.

Equally frustrated by U.S. inaction and Israeli intransigence, Abbas is sending clear signals that he may take drastic action -- and fast!

Scenario A sees Abbas simply resigning -- walking away from a Palestinian Authority that could potentially collapse from the resulting power vacuum. Far more impactful would be a move by Abbas to unilaterally declare Palestinian independence -- an option increasingly popular in many European and Latin American nations.

With no formal borders or autonomous army, or even its own currency, the P.A. clearly lacks the institutions needed to sustain a viable independent nation. Add in U.S. commitments to veto any U.N. statehood vote, and Palestinian sovereignty stabs -- at least for now -- are far more symbolic than actual attempts at bona fide independence. Nonetheless, the message is clear: Boxed in and beaten down, Abbas -- along with many Arab moderates -- is joining American liberals in their disillusionment with the Obama White House.

"Much as he did with the tax cut, Obama created incredible expectations [among] the Palestinians and within the Arab world," says pollster James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. "He's now doused those expectations, and there will be consequences. Arabs are beginning to feel like abused children, slapped around with nowhere to turn."

The most confounding aspect of Obama's settlement step-back is its sheer emptiness. While the tax compromise at least ensured continued unemployment benefits, the settlement reversal earns Obama -- and the peace process -- little in return. Moreover, it comes at a possible last-chance moment for any real progress on the settlement stalemate. White House initiatives -- like a two-state solution and settlement freezes -- are certain to be obstructed in the upcoming Republican-led Congress.

For the moment, however, the settlement issue appears off the table -- much as right-wingers in both Israel and the U.S. intended. "Israel has become a partisan issue in a way that it never was before, so attacking Obama's [peace process] policies has now become fair game," observes Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy at J Street, the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group.

Zogby's view is far less diplomatic. "AIPAC today operates from the right," he says. "Hardline Republicans and hardline Likudniks were out to get Obama from the beginning. They sought to defang him, to back him into a corner; they've played this thing to their advantage since day one."