The Obama administration says it is not giving up on its priority of restarting Middle East peace talks – but setbacks have, at the very least, put the high-profile diplomatic effort under wraps for a while.
As President Obama prepares to receive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday evening, the goal of a return to the negotiating table seems further off than at any time in the administration's nine-month effort. Blame falls on all shoulders: American, Israeli, and Palestinian.
Obama "started out much too loud, much too fast, and focused on the wrong issue [of settlements]," says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington who has worked with both Democratic and Republican administrations on the peace process. "They [in the administration] managed to alienate just about everybody, without having much to show for it."
But that does not mean the lack of progress falls solely at the administration's feet, Mr. Miller says: "It's not [Obama's] fault primarily, it falls above all on the two guys who were unable to come together on core issues," meaning Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"The president's mistake was putting America's capital and prestige on the line in an impossible situation," he adds, "It was an unnecessary misstep."
Mr. Netanyahu, in Washington to address a gathering of North American Jewish leaders, is trying to lay the fault for Obama's moribund peace efforts elsewhere. He insists he is ready to start talks with Palestinians. "We are ready to talk and the Palestinians aren't, it's as simple as that," Netanyahu told reporters accompanying him to Washington.
But that declaration overlooks Netanyahu's part in the administration's stalled efforts, experts say. The Israeli leader flatly rejected Obama's insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze. The freeze was part of a quid pro quo deal designed to enlist broad Arab support and bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.
Last week, the administration dug itself in deeper. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting the region, called Israel's offer to restrain the pace of settlement construction – though not in Arab East Jerusalem – "unprecedented." That declaration caused an uproar in Arab capitals. Officials assumed the US was either caving to Israeli obduracy, or that Secretary Clinton was wandering away from Obama's tougher line.
For their part, administration officials noted that Obama had begun using different language, speaking of settlement "restraint" rather than categorically of a freeze. But Clinton also backtracked – sowing additional confusion. She said the US goal remained a freeze, but that the Netanyahu government's offer still constituted progress.
US officials say the administration's thinking is that the Israeli detailed plan for limited settlement growth is positive. If adhered to, they suggest, it could eventually lead to a freeze.
But the Wilson Center's Miller says that even in a new administration, someone should have known better. Making a settlement freeze the key to resumed peace talks was not going to open any doors, he suggests: "Didn't somebody say, 'Mr. President, we can't get this'?"
In the meantime, Clinton and other officials are speaking of a reoriented effort concentrating on quieter diplomacy: small steps working with lower-level diplomats. What worries some officials, however, is the thought that the dashed hopes for a restart to peace talks could lead to renewed violence.
Miller says the administration needs to use the diplomatic setback "as what the president himself might call a 'teachable moment' " and consider why the effort backfired. He says, "Now is not the time for anything other than thinking about all this, and how to avoid such devastating results in the future."
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