Is US giving up too much to keep Middle East peace talks going?

Some Middle East experts are questioning the Obama administration’s approach, saying that the juicy carrots the US is offering may not get it where it wants to go.

By , Staff writer

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    Middle East peace talks: Special envoy George Mitchell talks during a media conference following his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (not pictured) in Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 3.
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The Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to keep the fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from a premature demise: Substantial carrots are being offered to both sides, and Washington is reminding America’s closest Arab partners how important reaching a peace accord is to regional and US interests.

But with a key Arab League meeting Friday shaping up as the next hurdle for the shaky talks, some Middle East experts are questioning the administration’s approach and criticizing what they say is giving up too much too early.

“It is not helpful to create a sense of crisis and breakdown,” says Elliott Abrams, a former special assistant on Middle East affairs in President Bush’s National Security Council. “Now we are apparently offering sweeteners to both sides ... in a way that seems desperate.”

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At issue is an Israeli moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank that expired at the end of September. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there would be no extension of the moratorium, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – who reluctantly agreed to the latest direct talks after encountering strong pressure to do so from his Arab neighbors – says he will abandon the talks without a stop to settlement construction.

To get the two parties beyond this early crisis – what US officials are publicly calling a “hump” in the negotiations – the United States is calling for a one-time 60-day extension. During those two months, the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state would presumably be set and the spoiler role of the settlement issue would be at least lessened.

To get the two parties on board, the US is dangling some pretty sizable carrots: major security guarantees to the Israelis, including a commitment to seek a long-term Israeli military presence in parts of any new Palestinian state, new military hardware, and support on regional security issues. (It remains unclear to what extent Iran, seen to be Mr. Netanyahu’s top concern, figures in the security guarantees).

To the Palestinians, the Obama administration is offering to formally state US support for borders based on the lines predating the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But both the “borders first” approach for keeping the talks moving and the administration’s early offering of some of the juiciest carrots in its basket have struck many analysts as unlikely to get the US where it wants to go – even if talks start up again in the short term.

It makes little sense, say some with experience in past negotiations, to use what may be your best cards simply to keep talks going: Those cards are exactly what you will need when (or if) those talks actually get down to hard compromises. Others say the approach is “unrealistic” because it promotes an idea that somehow borders can be set independent of other “final status” issues.

“The idea seems to be that if you settle borders, you settle the settlements issue, but I find that approach problematic,” says Robert Danin, a former State Department official and now a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. While “borders first” may initially provide a sense of momentum, he says, eventually it “robs the parties of the ability to do trade-offs.” He explains, “You make the issues like Jerusalem and refugees more difficult to solve.”

The result, Mr. Danin says, is that the sense of “urgency” around the talks is all coming from the US side – when all the while President Obama has said the peace process will succeed only if the parties want an agreement and peace more than those trying to help them get there.

With Mr. Abbas expected to seek direction – some might say cover – from Arab League leaders on pursuing or walking out on the talks, the US is following an approach of increasing outside pressures to keep the talks going. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been on the phone with Arab leaders in recent days to emphasize the key role they play with Abbas, State Department officials say. Mr. Obama’s special envoy for the Middle East, former Sen. George Mitchell, was in the region last week.

If the newborn talks do break off, the US will be left with having to deflate the sense of crisis, some regional analysts say.

Mr. Abrams, now a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says the US and other backers of Palestinian statehood, such as the European Union, should focus on “ground-up” construction of a Palestinian state.

Abrams holds the Obama administration responsible for the Palestinian leadership’s “not one brick” stance on Jewish settlements, but he says the US should seek a “compromise” on the issue that allows the parties to eventually get back to the table.

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