When President Obama hosted the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together at the White House Sept. 1 for the resumption of direct Mideast peace talks, it was about a year after Mr. Obama had hoped to take this momentous step.
The idea all along – from the second full day of his administration, when the president named former Sen. George Mitchell his special envoy for Middle East peace – had been to get the parties in the six-decade-old conflict back together and negotiating swiftly. Instead of leaving this Everest of US diplomacy for the end of Obama’s presidency, as the two previous chief executives had done in theirs, the goal was to show progress quickly and get an accord before the administration’s time ran out.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, Hamas in Gaza, and an aggressive Iran progressing inexorably in its nuclear program all made for a tough diplomatic environment.
But many regional experts – and some old hands at difficult negotiations, including Mr. Mitchell – agree that the novelty of reaching for a Middle East peace accord early in an administration now stands out as a key reason why this time, despite tall impediments and deep skepticism, the talks might actually succeed.
‘Time ran out’ for other presidents
“President Obama is the only president in recent times, to my knowledge, to have established this as a high priority immediately upon taking office and to have acted immediately at that time,” Mitchell said Sept. 2 at the State Department, when asked by journalists why he thought this time was different.
“It’s very clear that at least in a couple of instances [in the past], time ran out.... This president, I believe, will succeed. But as [Obama] said” in relaunching the talks, “neither success nor failure is predetermined or guaranteed – but it isn’t going to be because time ran out at the end.”
Just getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington together was a big first step. But by the time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrapped up the first day of formal talks, the results were modest: The leaders agreed to meet again in their region Sept. 14-15 and to continue meeting every two weeks or so after that.
The agreed first order of business: creating a “framework agreement” that is supposed to spell out the very tough issues that both sides will have to compromise on if a peace deal is to be reached within the one-year time frame set by Obama.
Demonstrating the administration’s determination to do all it can to keep the talks from bogging down, Mitchell announced that both he and Secretary Clinton will be on hand for the next session of the talks, probably in Egypt at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
Yet simply getting the talks going and having the big guns on hand will not be enough: More will be required of the United States if Obama is to have any hope of reaching – within a year, no less – what at the outset looks like an improbable peace, some Mideast experts say.
Under other presidents, a one-year deadline for reaching a settlement could be scoffed at, because it generally came when the president had only a year or so left in office, notes Daniel Levy, codirector of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington.
“It’s different when you’re in your last year of an administration,” Mr. Levy says – as when George W. Bush launched his bid for peace from Annapolis, Md., or when Bill Clinton dived headlong into the peace process. “But if your one-year deadline butts up against the beginning of your reelection campaign, [it] does create a different order of magnitude of self-created political pressure.”
One looming stumbling block
Looming over the resumption of direct talks is the expiration of Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement construction, which is set for Sept. 26. Mr. Abbas says he will walk out of talks if the freeze is not extended. Most Israeli experts expect Mr. Netanyahu will decide something that will make everyone unhappy – not a full extension of the moratorium, but no complete scuttling of it, either.
On the other side of the balance, some Middle East experts say that a number of factors make the environment much more conducive to progress. They list a lower level of violence, a historically low level of settlement activity, and remarkable progress by the Palestinian authorities in building the institutions of a state and in economic development.
But expecting movement from the Israeli side simply because of some improvement in Palestinian governance is a recipe for disappointment, Levy says.
“We’d all be tickled pink if we had an Israeli side that was just looking for a Palestinian interlocutor who would acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, be a good manager of state institutions, and do security well,” he said, speaking with reporters Sept. 1. “But that’s not the case on the Israeli side,” he added, calling Israel a “reluctant de-occupier” with more than 500,000 citizens living on Palestinian lands who would have to be resettled.
That’s where Obama comes in, Levy argues. He calls on the president to offer a new definition of the US-Israel relationship that elevates the conclusion of a two-state accord and explains its importance from a regional perspective.
US urged to ‘exploit this moment’
Officials from the region say it will take more from the Americans than pushing the parties to talk. “It’s not enough to offer a dinner and give some speeches, and it will take more than smiles and photo ops,” said Soliman Awaad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s spokesman, just before the Egyptian leader attended a White House dinner marking the restart of talks. “What’s really needed is for the US to step in.” President Mubarak took this message to Obama, Mr. Awaad says.
Others voice similar views. Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace & Development, who has long experience in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, says Obama should “exploit this moment of maximum leverage by making a dramatic proposal or initiative that breaks new ground.” Mr. Cohen is the author of “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East.”
Might this idea of a “framework agreement” to guide subsequent talks be just such a groundbreaker? Cohen acknowledges that the answer may be in the agreement itself, but from what he saw initially, he doesn’t think so.
“I didn’t see signs of much originality,” he said in the hours following the Sept. 2 talks. “But I can’t yet give a grade, because I haven’t read the final exam.”
That may be where just about everybody interested in seeing the Israelis and Palestinians finally make peace sits about now. Everyone knows the road ahead will be demanding, including for the Obama administration.