How Obama hopes to restart Mideast peace talks

Arab leaders are bracing for disappointment as the Obama Administration prepares to unveil the next stage of its plan to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Arab leaders are bracing for disappointment as the Obama Administration prepares to unveil the next stage of its plan to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Administration is hoping to announce the resumption of final-status negotiations over a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians later this month, either during the U.N. General Assembly meeting or soon thereafter, according to senior Arab officials involved in consultations on the plan.

But with the deadline rapidly approaching, Washington’s Arab allies have expressed concern to the Administration about the content of the proposals to be delivered by Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell.

One senior Arab official who asked to remain anonymous recently noted that the initial optimism generated by President Obama’s decision to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had given way to a “growing anxiety” among his country’s leaders.

Arab governments fear that Mitchell and the White House are not ready to force Israel to make concessions on the most contentious issues that have stymied the achievement of peace over the years — and they don’t expect the Israelis to move without U.S. pressure.

The benchmark set by Arab regimes for proof of Israel’s good faith is a freeze on settlements in territory conquered in 1967, a position supported by the Administration.

Mitchell has spent the past six months trying to get the Israelis to agree to a settlement freeze, with mixed results. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem issued conflicting statements, saying that it would freeze settlements in part, but continue with certain projects underway.

And on Sept. 7, Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued permits for the construction of almost 500 new housing units in West Bank settlements.

The Arabs are right to worry. Mitchell is still engaged in tough negotiations with the Israelis and will travel to Israel this weekend, but there are several reasons why Obama may accept a less than absolute freeze on settlement activity by the Israelis.

First, even a partial settlement freeze is more than any Administration has been able to squeeze from Israeli leaders in the past, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

“If Israel says, ‘We’ll put a moratorium on settlement activity, except for some exceptions,’ it’s something the Obama Administration achieves that their predecessors haven’t.”

Second, the Administration’s efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front may be shaped by U.S. priorities elsewhere in the Middle East — namely, getting Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. aims to impose “crippling” sanctions if Iran doesn’t comply with its international obligations, but making such sanctions effective requires cooperation from Iran’s Arab neighbors.

Washington’s prospects for securing Arab cooperation on Iran are improved if Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are underway.

The Arab governments are aware of the Obama Administration’s calculations, and have been playing the Iran card from their own side in the hope of convincing Washington to apply pressure on Israel.

“The neighboring states can hardly jump into bed with the U.S. on Iran if the ball is dropped” on the peace process, says the senior Arab diplomat.

But the threat of withholding Arab cooperation on Iran in the absence of a settlement freeze in the Palestinian territories is not entirely credible, because Arab regimes have as much to fear from a nuclear armed Iran as does the U.S. And if the Obama Administration accepts Israel’s partial settlement freeze, it will be hard for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to refuse to talk.

So, Obama is likely to call the Arab-Palestinian bluff with the best deal he can get from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

More than six months after starting work on reviving the peace process, the White House needs to get past talking about talks and get to the business of negotiation.

“This has become a losing game and it’s time to move on to final status, the thing that matters most,” says Malley.


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