Obama and Mideast peace: Time ripe to push again for breakthrough?

With political wins hard to come by at home, the president could look abroad for accomplishments to tout during the 2012 race.

By , / Staff writer

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    US Mideast envoy George Mitchell (fourth from left) toured the Al Juneidi Dairy Factory in the West Bank city of Hebron last month.
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Could 2011 turn out to be a breakthrough year for Middle East peacemaking?

The idea might seem far-fetched, given that Israelis and Palestinians are not even talking to each other as the year dawns.

Yet a number of influences – including a growing Arab population in Israel, increasing international rejection of Israel's rule over the Palestinian people, and bubbling Palestinian frustrations that could presage another intifada (uprising) – are all reasons that the coming months could be different, some Middle East experts say.

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But perhaps the greatest factor in determining whether 2011 turns out to be the year of either the culmination or the end of the two-state solution will be American diplomacy.

And crucial to that will be President Obama's evaluation, at some point in the weeks before September, of whether conditions are ripe for his personal involvement in reaching at least the framework of a final deal.

Mr. Obama's big-fanfare launch last September of direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians crashed just three months later, leading some Middle East pundits to predict that the administration would be unlikely to jump headlong into the peace pot again anytime soon.

That conclusion may have overlooked two crucial realities:

First, the administration insists it is sticking to its goal of reaching a comprehensive peace settlement within the one-year deadline set by Obama last September.

"Our goal remains to reach a framework agreement within 12 months. So we're looking for some fairly rapid progress on ... substantive aspects of the core issues," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at a briefing Dec. 14.

Second, the US political calendar and Obama's presumed reelection campaign would seem to rule out a focused presidential effort on Middle East peace in 2012. At the same time, however, taking a major Middle East milestone into the campaign would be a considerable plus for the president, some foreign-policy experts say, especially since the domestic picture is expected to offer few advantages.

"Mr. Obama will need some accomplishments going into a reelection campaign, and given the situation he faces in the Congress and the pace of the economic recovery, some significant progress in some aspect of foreign affairs may be easier than progress at home," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"And if in fact there is a reasonable prospect of reaching a framework agreement," Mr. Clawson continues, "the president is going to want to have his fingerprints all over it."

Voters value Middle East peace

That may be all the more true considering that the American public – read US voters – places sizable importance on reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. In a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted early this month, 60 percent of Americans said the administration should give moderate or high priority to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement by the administration's own deadline of September. Another 20 percent said such an accord should be a "very high" priority, while only 8 percent said it should be "very low."

Perhaps surprisingly, Americans also largely favor Obama getting personally involved in reaching an accord on a two-state solution by September. In the Monitor/TIPP poll, 54 percent said he should give the issue "moderate" to "high" importance, and 21 percent said Obama should give it "very high" importance – compared with 10 percent who said the president should give the issue "no importance at all."

Of course, Obama is not about to put his presidential prestige on the line if prospects for an accord are dim, and right now, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side seems eager to reach an agreement.

"It's quite conceivable that you could reach an agreement on some basic issues and fashion a framework agreement in nine months," Clawson says. But "the question is, are the two sides interested? That's something we don't really know."

Needed: a 'big bang' initiative?

The current standoff has led some to conclude that a "big bang" initiative or statement – for example, a declaration by Obama setting out the principles for a peace accord – will be necessary for any hope of progress this year.

After the collapse of the Obama-initiated direct talks, the United States reverted to its old approach of talking to each side, with special envoy George Mitchell visiting the region. The aim is to see if at some point the US might offer "bridging proposals" for bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together, but few observers say this will be enough. The White House has convened a task force of outside experts who are to report to national security adviser Tom Donilon by the end of January or early in February with ideas for jump-starting the stalled negotiations.

In the meantime, one option gaining traction on the international stage calls for the world to simply recognize Palestine as a de facto state based on pre-1967 borders. Earlier this month, Chile joined several other Latin American countries and more than 100 other countries worldwide in recognizing Palestine as a state.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, outlines this scenario:

First, the "Quartet" of powers working for a Middle East peace – the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations – could declare a Palestinian state, and then the United Nations Security Council could adopt that declaration.

As a kind of test of how far things might go through the UN, a group of Arab countries this week submitted to the Security Council a resolution that condemns Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The US has not said if it would use its veto power if the resolution ever comes up for a vote, but State Department officials did say this week that such "unilateral measures" are unhelpful and do nothing to get the two parties back to the negotiating table.

But others see any initiative emanating from the UN as a nonstarter, given Israel's mistrust of the global body. More likely, they say, is a "declaration of principles" by Obama sometime before September that lays out the path (though not all the specifics) of a peace agreement.

Financial, security roles for US

Such a declaration would probably include issues involving the broader region, Middle East experts say. It would also be likely to set out the financial and security commitments that the US would make as part of a two-state accord.

One question heard increasingly around Washington is, "should the administration hammer up the 25 principles on the wall that Americans could support?" says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel and longtime diplomat. Such a declaration by Obama would be "more than the 'Clinton parameters' [set by former President Clinton], but not a peace treaty."

The idea has both risk and potential for Obama. "Obama won't see it in his political interest to be stuck in a drearily unproductive process as he approaches his own [September] deadline for making progress, so pressure will grow to do something more dramatic," Mr. Lewis says.

But such a declaration could have the effect of driving the parties further apart, others say.

"You might make it harder to restart the [peace] process if you put out positions that each side is going to interpret in its own way," says Vin Weber, who served as a Republican US congressman and is a former chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "On the Hill, supporters of Israel would look for what in there is going to undermine Israel."

Such a step wouldn't thrill the Palestinians, either.

"The Palestinians would want more. They say, 'We have had enough partial agreements,' but Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] wants to go step by step," Lewis says.

"That leaves us caught in the middle," he concludes, "between these two ways of thinking."

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