The Cable

In letters, Obama asked Arab states for confidence-building measures toward Israel

As U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell arrives in Israel Sunday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, after visiting Abu Dhabi and Damascus and before heading on to Egypt and Bahrain, Foreign Policy has confirmed that President Barack Obama has sent letters to at least seven Arab and Gulf states seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel, which Washington has been pushing to agree to a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

One former senior U.S. official who was aware of the letters said they had been sent "recently" to seven Arab states, including the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The letters reinforce "the Mitchell message re: the need for CBMs [confidence-building measures] in exchange for [settlement] freeze and to [get] peace talks restarted," the former senior official said by e-mail.

"These letters were sent some time ago," a White House official told Foreign Policy Sunday, when asked about them. "The president has always said that everyone will have to take steps for peace. This is just the latest instance of this sentiment."

The official declined to provide a date of the letters, but said, "they'd been reported before a month or two ago."

Israeli daily Ha'aretz previously reported that Obama had written Morocco's King Mohammed VI "expressing his hope and expectation the Arab states will take steps to end Israel's 'isolation' in the Middle East, and ... in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world."

Last week, a "Dear Colleague" letter supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was circulated by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Sen. James Risch (R-ID) urging Obama to encourage Arab states to "normalize relations with Israel" and recognizing "the key role that Arab states can play in furthering the peace process." A House version circulated by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) had received 85 signatures as of Friday, a representative of AIPAC said.

Last Sunday, Bahrain's Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa called in the Washington Post for Arabs to talk to Israelis. "Our biggest mistake has been to assume that you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb," al-Khalifa wrote. "The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning -- patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel. [...] We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move. We've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."

Mitchell's planned visit to Bahrain this week would seem to indicate Washington's interest in exploring ways to advance the crown prince's call for "simultaneous, good faith action." Saudi experts previously indicated to Foreign Policy that Riyadh was not inclined to show intermediate steps towards normalization with Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze. Instead, Riyadh wanted an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to precede its Arab peace plan offer for normalization of relations between Israel and 23 Arab states.

Citing a Saudi official he interviewed on assignment in Riyadh last month, McClatchy's Middle East bureau chief Dion Nissenbaum reported Thursday that Bahrain sought permission from the Saudi king before publishing the carefully worded Washington Post opinion piece. Saudi King Abdullah cautioned his Bahraini counterpart "not to go too far in offering concessions to Israel," Nissenbaum reported.

"During his hurriedly arranged visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Obama asked King Abdullah to try to broker a new Palestinian unity government, to revamp his 2002 peace initiative and to consider some good-faith gestures to Israel, officials in Riyadh said," Nissenbaum wrote. "With Saudi Arabia apparently unwilling to take such steps, American officials have been approaching less-influential Arab nations that may be more amenable to Obama's overtures. Israel and the United States have floated a variety of ideas: Qatar might reopen the Israeli trade office it shuttered in January to protest Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Tunisia and other countries might allow Israeli planes to use their airspace. Arab leaders also might grant interviews to Israeli journalists, an Israeli government idea that the crown prince of Bahrain publicly endorsed last week, saying that Arab nations should ‘tell our story more directly to the Israeli people by getting the message out to their media.'"

"One of the main [reasons] Arabs are saying they can't go very far" in showing possible reciprocal gestures to Israel, said Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, "is, [they say], ‘what worries us most, will you guarantee that the Israelis won't embarrass us?'" Levy explained that Arab governments are afraid they will show reciprocal gestures only to have Al Jazeera showing pictures of new Jewish settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

When Israel's new ambassador to Washington Michael Oren was at the State Department July 17 for a "getting to know you" session, State Department officials raised with him among other topics Washington's opposition to Israel having recently granted permission for a 20-year old plan for construction of 20 Jewish apartments at the site of the old Shepherd Hotel in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, JTA's Ron Kampeas reported.

The Saudis could point to the planned Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as an example of the reason Arab states feel they could be publicly embarrassed if the United States doesn't get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze first, a Washington Middle East peace activist who asked to speak anonymously said. "The Saudis could point to that and say, ‘President Obama, we believe you are serious; but until you have the Israelis under control, you can't expect us to act.'"

The Cable

White House sends A-Team to Israel to try to overcome settlements impasse, talk Iran

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.