Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-hour marathon meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in New York could signal a turning point in the effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, as the administration works to resolve the dispute over Israeli settlement building by turning the focus to borders and security.
The Obama administration's latest strategy seems to have two main elements, according to a senior official's read out of the meeting and analysis by current and former officials on both sides. First, the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu as many security guarantees as possible in order to give the Israeli government increased confidence to move to a discussion of the borders that would delineate the two future states. Second, the administration wants to work toward an understanding on borders so that both sides can know where they can and can't build for the duration of the peace process.
"If there in fact is progress in the next several months, I'm confident people will look back at this meeting between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu as the foundation of the progress. It was that important," former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable.
Wexler said that President Obama had long been asking both the Israelis and the Palestinians for clarity on the territories they envisioned being part of their future states. The recent meeting, he said, could be an important step in that direction -- at least in clarifying Israel's position.
"I am hopeful that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of clarity in terms of Israel's visions about her own borders -- where does Israel want Israel's borders to be," said Wexler. "Because ultimately, we can't help our close friend until they share with us their own vision."
The meeting was the highest level interaction between the U.S. and Israeli governments since the last round of direct talks in September. Wexler said that while the two leaders didn't sit down with a map and draw lines around particular neighborhoods, the administration's switch to a focus on borders as a means of getting at the settlements problem was clear. "It's the only rational, sane way to proceed," he said. "Talking about borders and territories will by definition minimize the impact of the settlement issue."
Wexler said that by virtue of the fact that the meeting was seven hours, it's reasonable to assume that significant progress was made. "I think we're very close to creating that magic formula that satisfies both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come back to the table."
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, wasn't so sure. He pointed to the boilerplate statement that Clinton and Netanyahu issued after the meeting as evidence that no real breakthrough was achieved.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Clinton had a good discussion today, with a friendly and productive exchange of views on both sides. Secretary Clinton reiterated the United States' unshakable commitment to Israel's security and to peace in the region," the statement read.
But Areikat endorsed the idea of discussing borders ahead of the settlements issue, saying that's what the Palestinian side has been advocating all along.
"The conventional wisdom is that if we deal with the issue of the borders then we will be able, by default, to deal with the issue of settlements -- and if you can define the borders of the two states and agree on these borders, then each party can build in its own territory without being contested by the other party," Areikat told The Cable. "This is what everybody is aiming at.... Now whether the Americans are going to succeed in convincing the Israelis to do it, we have to wait and see."
Of course, the two sides disagree over the order of events even when discussing the border issue.
"The Palestinian position is that we need to agree on the borders, then we will discuss in parallel the security arrangements. The Israelis are saying no, we need to define first what the security arrangements are to project what the final borders will be," Areikat explained.
In what appears to be a recognition of the Israeli position, Clinton and her team apparently spent a good deal of their time with the Netanyahu team spelling out a long list of additional security guarantees the Obama administration is offering to Israel.
In a Friday morning conference call with Jewish community leaders, notes of which were provided to The Cable, the National Security Council's Dan Shapiro described several of the ways America has been advocating on behalf of Israel's security in recent months. They included increased U.S. diplomatic opposition to efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block efforts to revive the Goldstone Report at the United Nations, promising to block condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program at the IAEA, and increasing pressure on Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities.
The U.S. position on settlements has not officially changed, Shapiro said. The United States still believes that the Israeli settlement moratorium should be extended, but that Palestinians should stay in peace talks even if it is not. He said that President Obama -- who said Monday that Israeli settlement construction was "never helpful" to peace talks Israel announced further construction plans in East Jerusalem -- wasn't trying to publicly criticize Netanyahu with his remarks. He simply answered a question put to him in a direct way, said Shapiro.
The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting was the culmination of several days of intensive, personal attention to the issue by Clinton herself. On Tuesday, she held a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to announce $150 million in new U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman to discuss the Middle East peace process.
But in the Washington press, the seven-hour conversation was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu's meeting with incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Unlike Clinton, Cantor publicly disclosed what he told Netanyahu.
"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."
Wexler said he didn't see a problem with Cantor's remarks or stance. "It's a perfectly natural, appropriate meeting to have," said Wexler, who pointed out that Netanyahu also met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). "I don't believe he intended to play the president, the prime minister, or anyone else against one another."
But Areikat saw Cantor's stance as extremely unhelpful.
"This amounts to undermining the efforts of the U.S. to achieve peace," he said. "People like Eric Cantor who blindly oppose the Palestinians, they think they are helping Israeli interests but he is hurting Israeli interests. By making these statements they are hardening Israeli positions."
UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Shapiro was describing a list of ways America was already working on behalf of Israel's security, not a new list of incentives discussed in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.