Middle East conflict: US tries new approach for peace

The US relaunches peace efforts in the Middle East conflict, this time apparently focusing right away on ‘final status’ issues.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this file photo, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, George Mitchell, speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington on November 25, 2009. Mr. Mitchell and Hillary Clinton met with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan on Friday.

It’s been almost a year since President Obama set Middle East peace as a top foreign-policy priority, and now the administration is marking that anniversary by relaunching its efforts.

In what could turn out to be a bold – or foolhardy – move, the administration appears to have decided to try to jump-start the stalled talks by leapfrogging over the broad range of issues normally taken up to instead focus at the outset on setting borders and tackling the issue of Jerusalem.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and George Mitchell, Mr. Obama’s special Middle East envoy, kicked off the latest peace offensive Friday. They met at the State Department with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan – the only two Arab countries having formal diplomatic relations with Israel and two nations considered crucial to moving the peace process forward.

Then next week, Mr. Mitchell will travel to Europe, where he will meet with other powers pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. He’ll also lay the groundwork for a fresh round of travel to the Middle East at the end of the month.

The new push is expected to include the drafting of letters that set out areas to be addressed by a final accord. It is also expected to guarantee US support for both sides in the implementation of a peace plan.

The administration’s new strategy follows a disappointing 2009 in which Obama’s hopes of restarting peace talks were dashed. Now, the administration appears to be moving away from a slow-and-steady approach.

“We need to lift our sights, and instead of ... looking down at the trees, we need to look at the forest,” Secretary Clinton said after her meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “We know what a final resolution will have to include: borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, water,” she added.

The idea to focus right out of the blocks on borders reflects the thinking that establishing borders could be a way of addressing the thorny issue of Israeli settlements.

“Resolving borders resolves settlements. Resolving Jerusalem resolves settlements,” Clinton said.

Mr. Judeh added: “If you resolve the question of borders, then you automatically resolve not only settlements in Jerusalem, but you identify the nature of the ground of the two-state solution.”

Whether the two principal parties in the talks will agree is another story.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has curtailed – but not stopped – settlement construction. He says he stands ready to return to the negotiating table without preconditions. But he also says that Jerusalem must be undivided and under Israeli jurisdiction.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, insists that all settlement activity must stop before talks can resume. And on Friday his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, threw cold water on the “borders first” idea, even as Mr. Erekat expressed support for the idea of launching into final-status talks.

“You cannot have discussions on borders while the territory you want to set up your state on is being eaten up by the settlements,” he said.

The difficulty of the issues in a discussion of borders leaves some Middle East analysts doubtful about the prospects for progress under the administration’s new approach.

“I’m all for restarting the talks, but I don’t believe you can simply go to final-status issues – that if you solve borders you solve the question of settlements or Jerusalem,” says Bernard Reich, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington.

Mr. Reich says he appreciates that the administration is trying to come up with a new approach to a foreign-policy priority that has not moved forward. But he also sees little that has fundamentally changed in the past six months to suggest an opening for short-term progress.

Beyond that, he says, Judeh’s comments with Clinton, which included repeated references to the Arab peace initiative, suggest a tough slog ahead on the Jerusalem issue.

“The Arab initiative talks about Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, but the Israelis are not going to make any final judgment on that without everything else being resolved,” he says. “If you exclude Jerusalem you might have something to start with, but I don’t see any Palestinian leader agreeing to anything like that.”


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