Obama administration pursues two-state Mideast solution

The president will meet with three leaders from the region in coming weeks. Meanwhile, special envoy George Mitchell finds it tough going.

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    U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a press conference in the West Bank last month. The Obama administration has invited the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to Washington in an effort to restart peace talks.
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President Obama plans to host the principles in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process in separate White House visits over the coming weeks -- signaling the administration’s determination to pursue the two-state solution to the conflict.

By inviting the leaders of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority to high-profile Washington visits, Obama is underscoring his administration's adoption as its own of the path to creation of a Palestinian state first articulated by former President Bush in 2002.

The difference is that Obama is making peace a priority from the outset of his administration, while Bush waited until the final months of his mandate -- a point that was too late for progress, most experts in the region say.

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“With these invitations, Obama is stressing that his administration is committed to advancing the peace process from day one, and thus he’s differentiating himself from the Bush administration, which waited until the end,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The administration may however be setting up a clash with Israel over priorities. Under newly elected conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is shifting the peace process to a slow-cook back burner and moving Iran and its nuclear program to the front and high heat -- a priority flip the administration is already signaling it does not favor.

US wants peace process to advance

In congressional testimony this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration will not “prejudge” the new Israeli government but will wait to hear Mr. Netanyahu’s views when he meets with Obama early next month. Still, she cautioned against any retreat from the peace process that would use the Iranian threat as justification.

“For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts,” she told the House Appropriations Committee. “They go hand in hand.”

There’s no doubt that Israel is putting new emphasis on the threat it sees in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, says Mr. Clawson. But he adds that Mr. Netanyahu is also positioning himself to win Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state -- a step no Palestinian leadership has yet taken.

“Officially Netanyahu says he has not yet taken a position on the two-state solution because he says the whole thing is under policy review,” notes Clawson.

“But my sense is that Netanyahu will want to present a common front with Obama when he visits Washington, so he’s focused on using Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state as his bargaining chip for buying into the two-state solution,” he says. “That way he can go home saying Obama pressured him into accepting a hard choice, but one that is a better bargain for Israel, and Obama can say he extracted from Netanyahu Israel’s renewed commitment to the two-state solution.”

Road to peace passes through Jerusalem

The invitations, and related comments by administration officials, also suggest a return by the US to the traditional American diplomatic posture that the road to peace in the Middle East passes through Jerusalem -- in other words, that settling the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will pave the way to broader regional stability.

With the Iraq war, the Bush administration tested its formula that the road to regional peace might instead lead through Baghdad, but Obama formally lays that discredited approach to rest by reprising a more classic line of action.

Obama used the occasion of a visit to the White House on Tuesday by Jordan’s King Abdullah to lay out his commitment to substantive peace talks. Saying his aim is to move the process forward “with some urgency,” Obama added, “My hope would be that over the next several months, that you start seeing gestures of good faith on all sides.”

Obama moved quickly out of the blocks upon taking office in January by naming seasoned US diplomat George Mitchell his Middle East peace envoy. But former Senator Mitchell is not encountering bright prospects on his initial forays into the region.

Israel under Netanyahu has studiously avoided endorsing the two-state solution as his predecessor did. Upon taking office in late March, Netanyahu said Israel does “not want to rule the Palestinians,” adding, "Israel always, and today more than ever, strives to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world.” But at the same time, and subsequently, he has refrained from any mention of a Palestinian state.

Palestinians divided

At the same time, the Palestinians are divided between the supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas -- it is Mr. Abbas who will meet with Obama at the White House -- and those of Hamas, the radical Islamist organization that won control of Gaza in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

The result is that on his third trip to the region as Obama’s envoy earlier this month, Mitchell met with little enthusiasm -- from either resistant Israelis or skeptical Palestinians.

In addition to Netanyahu and President Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will travel to Washington to meet with Obama -- the three meetings expected by early June, according to White House officials.

Mr. Mubarak has not visited the US since 2004 -- a gauge for some experts in the region of how low prospects for the peace process have sunk in recent years, despite an eleventh-hour attempt by the Bush administration to reinvigorate them. Mubarak and the Egyptians enter the equation through their relationship with Hamas.

Recognizing that split Palestinian governance is a major obstacle to any progress towards a peace settlement, the Obama administration wants the two principle governing organizations -- Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah party -- to accept a national unity government composed of technocrats -- and not politicians -- until elections are held early next year.

Says WINEP’s Clawson, “Obama will say to the Egyptians, ‘You are the lifeline to Hamas, so you are in a particularly good position to press them, and to help us get this national unity government that can pave the way to some badly-needed signs of progress’.”

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