Last night, at his White House news conference, Barack Obama was asked to explain his logic for pushing an August deadline on getting health reform legislation passed. "If you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen," the U.S. president said. "The default position is inertia ... There's always going to be some interest out there that decides, ‘You know what, the status quo is working for me a little bit better.'"
The same might be said about the current dispute between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Washington's demand that Israel freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank. For several weeks, U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell has been negotiating with Israeli leaders over what exactly a settlement freeze means, as Israeli leaders have looked for wiggle room. Obama says his tough line on Israeli settlements is intended to remove a key obstacle to getting to a two-state solution and advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and Arab states.
A flurry of upcoming meetings between senior U.S. and Israeli officials suggests that Washington is determined to try to overcome the current impasse. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Israel Monday for talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other leaders. Mitchell too is headed back to Israel Sunday, after visits today in Abu Dhabi, and Damascus Saturday, and before going on to Egypt and Bahrain.
National Security Advisor Gen. James. L. Jones also confirmed to Foreign Policy that he plans to lead a separate multiagency team that reportedly includes officials from the Treasury Department, CIA, as well as NSC Senior Director for the Central Region Dennis Ross to Israel for meetings next Wednesday with Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad and others. Iran is expected to be the major focus of these talks, which are separate from the Gates' trip, a U.S. defense official said. Some Iran watchers believe if Iran hasn't responded to the offer for talks by September, that the process for organizing a tougher sanctions regime targeting Iran will begin to get underway at the U.N. General Assembly in September and subsequent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, although administration and outside sources have indicated Russia is not likely to support such measures until after the end of the year.
Obama's stance on Israel is facing predictable criticism from more right-leaning pro-Israel groups in the United States. Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, for instance, this week described the U.S. pressure over plans to build Jewish housing on the site of a Jerusalem hotel as "racist." But more troubling perhaps for Obama are doubts from some who strongly support his push to resolve the conflict.
"I think it is extremely important to send this firm message," on his resolve to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning pro-peace group J Street. "But if one is choosing something to have a true, go-to-the-mat moment with between the U.S. and Israel, should one really choose it on a piece of puzzle, or do it around a real resolution on how to go forward and try to end the conflict?"
"There needs to be a conclusion to the U.S.-Israel impasse over settlements that deals with the core principle that the Obama administration is seeking to promote: no prejudging of negotiations," said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and coauthor with Ross of Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.
"This can be achieved by the Obama administration's focus on 'no geographic expansion' of settlements with a mechanism to monitor its implementation," Makovsky continued. "The current approach of the administration, with its focus on the phrase 'settlement freeze,' sadly uses an axe when a scalpel is needed. The current approach sets an unrealistic bar. If the Israelis want to build vertically without expanding the constructed footprint of the settlement, this has nothing to do with any conceivable interpretation of land encroachment. Therefore, by perpetuating the impasse with Israel instead of bringing it to a swift conclusion, [the United States is] blocking the very idea that the we seek to promote: commencing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations."
"Mitchell asks Israel for a complete settlement freeze, but hasn't put it into the proper context," a former senior George H.W. Bush administration official told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. "He's trying to create the appropriate conditions for peace negotiations for a two-state solution. However, the negotiations must be prefaced by the administration stating the parameters of a two-state solution, which are widely known. Starting talks without that context and without U.S. engagement will be futile given the level of distrust on both sides."
In an effort to try to bring along a key domestic constituency, and an indication of the political sensitivity of the issue, Obama recently invited leaders of American Jewish groups to the White House to discuss his thinking on the Middle East as well as domestic policies, such as healthcare.
"My sense is they know that while they got a majority of the Jewish vote ... that there is an unease in the community," said one involved right-leaning Jewish leader who met with Obama earlier this month, who asked to speak anonymously. "I think they know they have a problem. Ross is being brought in" to the White House because they know "they have some problems in the policy. But that doesn't mean the policy will change."
He acknowledged, however, that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel "is very committed," to Obama's tough-minded approach and Middle East peace push. He added, "This administration is five people: Rahm, Axelrod, Gibbs, the president and McDonough" -- referring to White House political advisor David Axelrod, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, the president, and NSC deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and close Obama foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough.
Even if the United States and Israel are able to come to an agreement on settlements and move forward, other hurdles of course remain. For one, the Saudis have indicated they don't intend to show Israel reciprocal gestures in exchange for a settlement freeze. Instead, several experts familiar with the Saudi position say, they feel they have offered the ultimate incentive in the Arab peace plan that would normalize relations between Israel and 23 Arab states once Israel and the Palestinians resolve their dispute.
"The problem that all Arabs have is that the administration keeps talking to them about steps of normalization," the former senior George H.W. Bush official said. "But they feel they have offered the ultimate step towards normalization" -- in the Arab peace initiative -- "not steps toward it -- in other words the whole enchilada -- full normal ties with Embassies, end of conflict, and so on. They don't understand why the administration wants to do a piecemeal approach." And the "buy-in" for Arab leaders "has to be settlement freeze, for however long it takes to get a discussion on borders, including what settlement blocks are going to become part of Israel or not, leading to talks on Jerusalem and refugees," the official continued. "To them it seems very logical."
Middle East expert and former consultant to the U.S. National Intelligence Council Stephen P. Cohen, author of the forthcoming Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East, said the all-or-nothing style of thinking of the Arab peace plan may reflect the fact that Arab leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah, because they are autocrats, can make decisions without having to bring along parliaments and win elections. Israeli prime ministers and American presidents, of course, do not have as much discretion.
But, speaking at a small forum this week in Washington, Cohen said that on his recent trips to Riyadh and Cairo, Arab leaders told him of another concern: that Mubarak and Abdullah, both in their 80s, believe they are the last leaders of their nations who will have such a pro-American orientation, and be either as able or inclined to help deliver peace. Their own abilities to do so, he said, may be reduced as possible succession struggles set in.
One U.S. official who has dealt with Riyadh told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity Thursday that the Saudis are very good at telling the U.S. what it needs to do, and not as good at doing what they need to do to help push a resolution to the Israeli Arab dispute. What would that be? "To make it easier for the Israelis to say yes."
UPDATE: The Gates, Jones and Mitchell trips are all separate from each other, a U.S. official told Foreign Policy Friday. Gates had not been to Israel in more than two years. He's going to discuss bilateral security relations, he said. Mitchell is going to discuss the peace process, and Jones' group, chiefly Iran.
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