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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.

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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.

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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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