After failure of direct Middle East talks, does Obama have a 'Plan B'?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is delivering a speech Friday, days after the US pulled back its latest inducements to Israel to foster Middle East talks. Will her speech launch a new initiative?

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site in a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem Wednesday. The United States on Tuesday abandoned its effort to persuade Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements, officials said, dealing a blow to efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The collapse of the Obama administration’s Middle East peace initiative – direct talks launched between the Israelis and Palestinians in September that were to have resulted in an accord within a year – has spawned a scramble for a “Plan B."

For the moment there doesn’t seem to be one – but might one be in the works?

Administration officials insist that talks US officials will hold separately with Israelis and Palestinians next week in Washington will take up substantive issues. And those meetings could offer a hint at where the administration’s initiative may be headed: back to indirect talks, but of a more robust and goal-driven variety.

Five largest Israeli settlements: who lives there, and why

Suggestions of how the administration plans to proceed are expected to come Friday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum on Middle East policy in Washington. Secretary Clinton has hinted that the dinner speech will offer more than boilerplate fare of the “this administration is dedicated to peace” variety.

In an interview last weekend, Clinton said she would make “a very formal set of remarks” on the peace process in the Saban Forum speech. “We have been talking with both parties very substantively, and I think that the United States can play a role to help each make decisions about very difficult matters that then can be presented to the other side,” she said in remarks to Al Hurra, the US government’s Arab language news channel.

Some American diplomats and analysts with long experience in the Middle East peace process have called on the US to jolt the lifeless negotiations by formally declaring the parameters of a final status agreement and setting those as the goal for the two sides to reach. But others discount that idea, saying it would never work.

“One option is this idea that you put up your own plan,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has State Department experience under six secretaries of State. But for political reasons and others related to a peace plan itself, he adds, “that idea is not realistic and would fail.”

Attention has shifted to Clinton’s upcoming speech after US officials on Tuesday revealed that the Obama administration has dropped efforts to reach an accord with Israel on another settlement freeze as a way of getting direct talks moving again.

Officials who spoke to reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity said the envisioned freeze deal – struck less than a month ago between Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was ultimately dropped after it appeared that Mr. Netanyahu would not be able to get his government’s approval for the deal. At the same time, the US apparently had second thoughts about prospects for the premise of the freeze deal: that a one-time 90-day settlement freeze would allow the two sides to make enough progress on issues like borders and land swaps so as to render the issue of settlements moot.

The proposed freeze only involved the West Bank, and not East Jerusalem, although Palestinian officials said they would only return to direct talks with a total freeze in place. The West Bank would constitute most of a future Palestinian state, and Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital.

Mr. Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says another option this administration won’t take “would be to simply walk away” from the peace process. “Under this president, that’s never going to happen.”

Between the two unacceptable options of “imposing a solution” and “simply throwing in the towel” remains what Miller calls the “middle option” of going back to indirect talks “that are focused on the two least hopeless issues on the table, and those are borders and security.” The US would engage with each side on these two issues, and at the end of perhaps three months of talks offer the “bridging proposals” needed to bring the two sides together.

“You forget settlements, you forget the direct talks, and you focus on the areas where you know there’s hope of making progress,” Miller says. That means putting off what the most difficult issues – what he calls the “identity issues” – of Jerusalem and refugees until later.

In order for the idea of beefed-up indirect talks to work, Miller says they would have to include a greater commitment and involvement from Clinton. “The secretary has to put her fingers on it,” he says, “she has to bring her prestige into it.”

Five largest Israeli settlements: who lives there, and why

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