During a Jerusalem press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau, Joe Klein asked Secretary Clinton if the Obama administration still insists on an Israeli settlement freeze as a confidence-building measure ahead of resumed negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu filibustered and disputed Klein about his question’s characterization of Israeli intransigence, saying, among other things, that no previous U.S. administration insisted on a settlement freeze. Then Clinton responded:

Well, I would add just for context that what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate. There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations. What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described – no new starts, for example – is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations. It’s also the fact that for 40 years, presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements.

But I think that where we are right now is to try to get into the negotiations. The prime minister will be able to present his government’s proposal about what they are doing regarding settlements, which I think when fully explained will be seen as being not only unprecedented but in response to many of the concerns that have been expressed. There are always demands made in any negotiation that are not going to be fully realized. I mean, negotiation, by its very definition, is a process of trying to meet the other’s needs while protecting your core interests. And on settlements, there’s never been a precondition, there’s never been such an offer from any Israeli government. And we hope that we’ll be able to move in to the negotiations where all the issues that President Obama mentioned in his speech at the United Nations will be on the table for the parties to begin to resolve.

I can’t figure out if that’s an actual climb-down from the settlement freeze, but it certainly sounds like Clinton (and, through her, Obama) doesn’t have the heart to keep to the precondition. After all, the administration says Israel/Palestine is the conflict it wants to resolve more than any other, and the negotiations have remained stalled.

But does the Obama administration get how precarious a moment this is for the Palestinian leadership? Gaza remains a humanitarian disaster, with 1.5 million people living under a blockade that contributes to a lack of economic activity so severe that they’re turning to drug abuse to cope. President Abbas bowed to Obama’s pressure to slow-walk the Goldstone report; he got an onslaught of popular anger so furious he probably won’t run in next year’s election for fear of humiliation. Here’s what that Goldstone deferral, pushed by Obama, means for the election, according to a recent poll:

When asked whom would they elect as President of the PNA if elections take place in 2010, the poll showed that there would be serious competition as a ratio of 16.8% said they would vote again for President Abbas and a similar ratio said they would vote for Marwan al-Barghouthi while a ratio of 16% said they would vote for Ismaeel Hanieh.

Ismaeel Hanieh is a Hamas politician. Marwan Barghouti is in jail. If Netanyahu won’t go along with a settlement freeze, does anyone seriously believe he’s going to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority controlled or even influenced by Hamas? And does anyone believe that Obama will force him to, if he won’t enforce the settlement freeze?

Some very smart and very moderate Palestinians — people who want peace, two states and nonviolence — recently explained to me that they get their legs cut out under them if they negotiate while Israel expands the settlements. Abbas said he wouldn’t do it. Now he’s expected to, thanks to Obama, from a position of greater popular weakness? What’s the U.S. giving to Abbas? Netanyahu knows what he’s doing. He’s pressuring an Obama administration that, as Gideon Levy writes in Ha’aretz, coddles Israeli intransigence in the naive hope of getting to negotiations, to create the conditions where negotiations are a non-starter; to say nothing of the nightmare that will befall the Palestinian people caught in between the occupation and the looming fanatical horror of Hamas government in the West Bank.

Netanyahu knows what he’s doing. Does Obama?