The Cable

Getting to yes on Middle East peace talks. Then comes the hard part: negotiations

With the expectation that the Obama administration plans to try to announce its Middle East peace-plan parameters and a rough calendar for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks next month, U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell is due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in London, the State Department said Monday.

"What George Mitchell is trying to do is lay the foundation that will lead to the resumption of meaningful negotiations," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at a Monday press conference. "There have been some reports that we're close to a breakthrough," he said. "But any reports that we've come to an agreement, or that we expect one on Wednesday necessarily, I would have to call premature."

"We're getting closer to laying this foundation where everybody's comfortable to coming and sitting down and talking," Kelly added.

"Mitchell is going to tell Netanyahu that 'we can do this simultaneously,'" predicted Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert and former consultant to the National Intelligence Council who followed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington last week closely.

According to Cohen, Mitchell expects Netanyahu to agree to some sort of settlement freeze that would be accompanied by a near-simultaneous Palestinian declaration that they would join peace talks with Israel before all settlements are actually ended; as well as signals from some Gulf and Arab states that they are willing to take intermediate steps toward normalization with Israel. Initially, that could mean the mutual opening of interests sections or liaison offices between Israel and several North African and Gulf states, Cohen said.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for six secretaries of state, said Sunday that the Obama administration is planning to produce, "in late September or October," either a conference or an announcement of a plan for a peace process -- Madrid Plus, as he called it -- involving at least three components:

  1. A relaunch of Israel-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as a track for resuming formal multilateral relations between Israel and other Arab states
  2. An agreement with the Netanyahu government on a settlement freeze that goes further than any other Israeli government has ever gone, and one that would "grandfather in a large number of discreet units and quiet understandings on Jerusalem"
  3. The resumption by Arab states -- with or without the Saudis, but including the Bahrainis, other Gulf states, Tunisians, and Moroccans -- of liaison offices or interest sections with Israel.

"And they are going to wrap the whole thing in an event -- a conference or an announcement," Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said.

It's not clear if or where such an international conference or talks launch would take place. Western diplomats have told The Cable that both Russia and France are keen to host such a conference.

Some officials and Middle East hands have suggested that an announcement of the administration's plan for how to proceed in the Middle East could come around the time of the U.N. General Assembly opening session in New York later next month, along with several Middle East and Iran related announcements.

Miller is effusive about the scope and significance of the prospective settlement freeze agreement the Obama and Netanyahu governments may be poised to strike, which he described as unprecedented.

(Netanyahu's proposed formula to Mitchell on settlements is that Israel won't build new Jewish settlements, won't expropriate land, and won't expand existing settlements, but will continue with existing projects already underway, the Israeli prime minister told a small gathering in London Monday. Jerusalem is not a settlement, he further said.)

But Miller remains pessimistic about the outcome of prospective negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Can they reach a conflict-ending agreement right now? That's a bridge too far," Miller said, citing the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on the issues of borders, Jerusalem, security, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral homes in Israel. He also said negotiations will be hampered by the lack of a really representative Palestinian government.

"That is the point," agreed Cohen, the director of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development and author of a new book, Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East. The United States is "acting as if there is a strong state" among the Arab states, he said. "But there is no leader who can make a decision who can carry the day. [Similarly], there is no strong leader in Palestine who can make a decision."

"Essentially there is an impasse that can only be broken if the U.S. proceeds to publish a 'peace plan' or coerce the two sides into some dialogue," a former senior Israeli official told The Cable. "So now the U.S. has to craft a policy that is comprehensive in scope (i.e., incorporates the Arab League Plan and the Syrian track) but one that is balanced between Israel and the Palestinians. The big carrot [on the Obama side]: 'Let's deal together with Iran.' The big stick: 'If you're not on board, we're out to lunch for 1-2 years. Otherwise, [there are] more pressing things to do.'"

Cohen recommends that Obama step up his efforts to engage the publics of Israel, and the broader American Jewish community, as he has done with the Muslim world.

Sources have said the Obama administration has considered suggestions that the president for instance give an interview to an Israeli journalist, but has thus far decided against it, for reasons that are not clear. Obama has given four interviews to various Arab media outlets, Middle East hands estimated, including his first interview upon taking office with Hisham Melham of satellite channel Al Arabiya.

Cohen says his suggestion for a strategic communications outreach to wider publics goes far beyond a single interview. "I don't think an interview is the way for Obama to deal with the Israelis," said Cohen, who was among those who consulted the White House on Obama's June Cairo speech to the Muslim world. "Obama should speak publicly -- and he is a great speaker -- to the Jews of the world the way he did to the Muslims of the world," he said. Perhaps a speech around the time of Jewish New Year holidays September 18 -- a couple days before the UN General Assembly session is scheduled to open.

The Cable

Short takes: Clinton on Goma, OMB budgets coming due, human rights/int'l appointments, USAID chatter

Clinton on Goma: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes to People magazine to write about the massive scale of sexual violence she witnessed in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on her Africa trip earlier this month, and what she plans to do both to alleviate the situation for its victims, and to try to prevent it in the future:

"In Goma, I met doctors and advocates who work every day to repair the broken bodies and spirits of women who have been raped, often by gangs, and often in such brutal fashion that they can no longer bear children, or walk or work," Clinton writes. "The United States will stand with these brave people. This week I announced more than $17 million in new funding to prevent and respond to gender and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We will provide medical care, counseling, economic assistance and legal support. We will dedicate nearly $3 million to recruit and train police officers to protect women and girls and to investigate sexual violence. We will send technology experts to help women and front-line workers report abuse using photographs and video and share information on treatment and legal options. ...

"While I was in the DRC, I had very frank discussions about sexual violence with President Kabila," Clinton continued. "I stressed that the perpetrators of these crimes, no matter who they are, must be prosecuted and punished. This is particularly important when they are in positions of authority, including members of the Congolese military, who have been allowed to commit these crimes with impunity."

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Budget brainstorming: Not so slow an August after all, several folks pulled into intense interagency planning exercises for formulating their agencies' fiscal year 2011 budgets have said. Obama has promised to stop using supplemental budgets to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But putting those prospective expenditures in the regular budget means agencies have to get their FY'11 prospective budget requests into the Office of Management and Budget by September. The task means key agencies are having to brainstorm intensively these days how much they think the U.S. will need to be spending on Iraq and Afghanistan up through January 2012, in other words, to try to predict the future more than two years out amid all that is unpredictable. "We're not doing a separate war budgeting," an OMB official confirmed. "This is part of the normal process. Budget guidance was sent out to all the agencies a couple months ago." As for the myth of slow Augusts, he said, it's something of a fantasy unlearned by government officials every August.

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Appointments: Human Rights Watch's COO Suzanne Nossel, a former aide to Richard Holbrooke at the United Nations, and the author who first put into circulation the "smart power" concept that has gained strong traction in Democratic foreign-policy circles and the Clinton State Department, will join the State Department at the end of the month as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, reporting to Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer. Among Nossel's initial tasks will be helping shepherd U.S. goals at the U.N. General Assembly opening session next month, around which time several Obama administration foreign policy initiatives -- including its Middle East peace plan vision or parameters -- are expected to be announced.

The nominee to be assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Michael Posner, is expected to be confirmed after Congress returns from August recess. Some sort of administrative issue or amended paperwork requirements apparently prevented Posner from getting confirmed with a slate of other nominees just before the recess, but is said to be close to being resolved. Hill sources said they believe he'll be up for consideration at the first business meeting following recess.

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Veep photo: Politico's Ben Smith reports that Vice President Joseph Biden has finally settled on an official photograph that can be distributed to federal offices, where his portrait has been missing.

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USAID speculation returns: Who is being considered for USAID administrator now that the leading candidate Paul Farmer has moved on? Sources in the development community and on the Hill say they are hearing that it is likely to be a safe candidate, someone already in place in the administration and possibly confirmed for something else. Sources have speculated on the names Aaron Williams, a former senior USAID official who has just gotten into place as director of the Peace Corps, the NSC's senior director for development Gayle Smith, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, and longtime Clinton advisor and former Albright-era North Korea hand Wendy Sherman, but the names appear to be in the realm of speculation at this point. One government source said he heard former Secretary of State and Obama-endorser Colin Powell recently floated but from an outsider. "People are desperate for someone," a development hand said on condition of anonymity. So all these names "could be the rumor mill spinning out of control." 

It's not just USAID getting itchy for leadership. Almost eight months into Obama's presidency, "fewer than half of his top appointees are in place advancing his agenda," the New York Times reports Monday. "Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled - a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring, a Senate that is intensively investigating nominees and a legislative agenda that has consumed both."