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Monday, Aug. 30, 2010


Mr. Obama tackles the Mideast

The Middle East has long been a graveyard for the diplomatic ambitions of U.S. presidents. There has been some progress in normalizing relations between Israel and its neighbors, but a real settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the realization of genuine peace between Israel and its neighbors remain stubbornly out of reach. The week before last, U.S. President President Barack Obama launched his own initiative, inviting Israel and the Palestinians to try once again to build an enduring peace. While he is right to try, there is little reason to believe he will succeed where his predecessors did not.

Mr. Obama promised during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would tackle the problem early in his presidency. His readiness to engage was another way in which he contrasted himself with his predecessor, Mr. George W. Bush, who had preferred to keep his distance from the Middle East.

Mr. Bush was a strong supporter of Israel and had a deep distrust and dislike of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. His preference to keep a distance was reinforced by the failure of talks between the two antagonists that had been brokered by Mr. Bill Clinton in the waning days of his administration. Mr. Bush's "anything but Clinton" position was spurred by the belief that U.S. presidents had squandered credibility by pushing the two sides toward a deal that neither was prepared to accept.

Better to let them truly seek peace than have the U.S. try to broker a deal. The result has been a festering conflict and the deterioration of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, prodded by the realization that too many other U.S. objectives hinged on progress in Israel-Palestinian relations, the U.S. tried to resume negotiations. Talks between the two parties broke down when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza Strip. Since then, there have been no official direct talks between the two sides.

After taking office, Mr. Obama appointed former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell his special envoy to the Mideast, hoping that he could replicate his success in Northern Ireland. Mr. Mitchell has been engaged in months of shuttle diplomacy, a task that has been complicated by the return to power in Israel of Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

Mr. Netanyahu is a hardliner, deeply suspicious of Palestinians and seems to prefer imposed settlements to negotiated ones. His inclinations have been strengthened by coalition partners who are even more obdurate. The Israeli government's drive to expand settlements and create "facts on the ground" have made diplomacy even more difficult.

Nonetheless, sensing that a window of opportunity may have opened — or that the clock was running out — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Aug. 20 that peace talks would resume Sept. 2 in Washington, with both Mr. Netanyahu and his counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in attendance. The talks will bring together former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet" — comprising the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — as well as representatives of Egypt and Jordan in "support roles." The Quartet seconded Mrs. Clinton's invitation and urged all parties to negotiate in earnest.

According to Mrs. Clinton, the talks will tackle and hopefully solve within one year the toughest issues that have defied resolution. These are the "final status" issues, including the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Mr. Mitchell said the U.S. would be "an active participant" and, while primary responsibility rests with Israel and the Palestinians, Washington will offer "bridging proposals" as needed.

It is an optimistic agenda, but it is hard to see the source of that optimism. Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip, has said it will not join the talks. Mr. Abbas' political position has weakened — because of the rising power of Hamas and his inability to slow Israel's acquisition of territory as it expands settlements. The setting of a one-year deadline gives Mr. Abbas some leverage: It implies that failure to make progress will push him to unilaterally declare independence.

Growing settlements are the largest immediate obstacle. Mr. Abbas had said that a freeze on their expansion was a condition to any talks. That is not an issue now, but a self-imposed Israeli moratorium on settlement growth expires Sept. 26. The invitation to Mr. Netanyahu made no mention of that issue, although Mrs. Clinton urged both sides to avoid provocations. Any new building at this point would appear as a deliberate act to undermine the negotiations.

The crucial dynamic may well be U.S.-Israel relations. Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship. They have deep disagreements but have patched things up in recent weeks. If Mr. Netanyahu does not want a deal, he may try to wait Mr. Obama out, sensing that the U.S. president's domestic political weakness will prevent him from pushing Israel to settle. That position matches those of the Israeli prime minister's coalition partners. That is no recipe for success.

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