Risks to US in gambit to keep the Middle East peace talks alive

The Obama administration's plan to clear the hurdle of new Israeli settlements is a risky leap, analysts say. Whether Middle East peace talks continue would hang on a 90-day window.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) gestures as he speaks to reporters during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Nov. 11, in New York.

The Obama administration is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a 90-day freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, suggesting that enough progress could be made over that time on land swaps and border-setting as to make moot the recurring stumbling block of settlements.

The deal represents a gamble for the Obama White House: In marathon talks last week between Mr. Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Obama administration agreed not to seek another settlement freeze once this one would end.

But the issue of Jewish settlements on Israeli-occupied territory has so frustrated President Obama’s ambitions for advancing the Middle East peace process that even a risky plan for removing the obstacle once and for all is apparently too tantalizing to pass up.

The idea is not that a full peace agreement could be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians within three months. Rather, the thinking is that 90 days would be enough time for the two sides to agree on exchanges of territory – a large settlement block on West Bank territory to be incorporated into Israel, for instance, in exchange for a compensating tract of land somewhere else for the Palestinians – so that new construction by Israel would no longer send peace negotiations off the rails.

The idea addresses one of the highest hurdles to sustaining peace-talk momentum, some regional analysts say, but it could also make a comprehensive peace deal more difficult.

“It has a logic to it, but it also raises some very serious questions about where you go from here,” says Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “What happens if the 90 days come and you’re not there [at a land-swap agreement] yet?”

Perhaps more troublesome, he adds, is that by addressing separately a core element of any peace accord, the US may unwittingly make other sticking points more difficult to resolve. “My concern is that you’re only making it harder to settle what are likely to be the two hardest issues in these negotiations – Jerusalem and the status of refugees – because you’re reducing your ability to make trade-offs,” says Mr. Danin, former director of the office of Quartet representative Tony Blair.

Then there is the question of what the US is offering Israel to accept the 90-day deal – and the widespread conclusion that the US is giving up too much too soon for too little.

In exchange for Israel accepting this last settlement freeze, the Obama administration is offering it some sweet carrots: a phalanx of new fighter jets, a US-Israel security pact, and a US commitment to thwart any Palestinian effort at the United Nations to do an end run around stalled negotiations. If Palestinian leaders were to ask the UN Security Council to grant pre-accord international recognition of a Palestinian state, for instance, the US would veto it.

Some Middle East analysts question why the US would expend so much of its leverage with Israel for such a short period of time – and with no guarantees of success. Administration officials answer that the deal could set direct talks between the two parties on a course unencumbered by what has been one of the darkest clouds hanging over them.

Israel’s agreement would also signal Netanyahu’s seriousness about direct talks – something not all sides in the administration have been convinced of, some officials say. Mr. Obama himself suggested this aspect of the proposed freeze deal last week when he told reporters that the deal, while “not easy for [Netanyahu] to do,” is nevertheless “a signal that he is serious.”

The concept of using land swaps to address the settlements issue and advance the peace process is reflected in the Obama administration's official language concerning the peace initiative. A joint statement issued Thursday after the Clinton-Netanyahu talks in New York quoted Secretary Clinton as saying the US remains confident that the parties can “mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."

But with the US offering so much seemingly just to keep the talks going, Danin asks “whether we want this more than the two parties most directly involved.” The risk for the US, he adds, is that by committing so much at this stage, “we run the risk of debasing our own currency.”

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