A Mideast Test For President Do-Everything

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Starting in September, President Obama will face a politically fateful battle in Congress over health-care reform. There is also the escalating war in Afghanistan and the tricky task of "responsibly" extracting some of the 130,000 remaining U.S. troops from Iraq. A showdown is approaching with Iran, which shows no sign of responding to a September deadline for opening negotiations on its nuclear program. All of that is on top of nursing the still-convalescing economy.

So, in his spare time, why wouldn't Obama set out to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a famously intractable problem that has defeated the past 11 U.S. administrations? It seems as though the president-who-would-do-everything will attempt just that.

As the U.N. General Assembly meets in late September, Obama aims to announce the opening of a new negotiating process between Israelis and Palestinians, along with "confidence-building" steps by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and a number of Arab governments. Though Obama will not offer a specific American "blueprint" for a peace settlement -- as a number of Arab governments have urged him to do -- he will probably lay out at least a partial vision of the two-state settlement that all sides now say they support, and the course that negotiations should take. More significantly, he intends to set an ambitious timetable for completing the peace deal -- something that will please Arabs but may irritate Israel.

Why do this now? There is, Obama said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week, "a growing realization on the part of the Palestinians that Israel is not going anywhere and is a fact, a reality that has to be dealt with; and a recognition on the part of the Israelis that their long-term security interests require finding an accommodation with the Palestinians and ultimately with their Arab neighbors."

In general, those observations are correct. But the administration's efforts to broker the initial steps that Obama hopes to announce have demonstrated just how difficult it will be to translate those promising trends into a peace agreement.

At the moment, in fact, there is still no deal. Instead, Obama's Mideast envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, has become embroiled in protracted and publicly fractious negotiations with the Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over whether and for how long it will freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, have repeatedly and publicly dismissed the idea of taking steps toward normalization of relations with Israel.

As so often happens in Middle East negotiations, what were intended as simple first steps have become an end in themselves, subject to months of posturing, hair-splitting and horse-trading. Both sides seem fairly confident that Mitchell and Netanyahu will reach a deal on the settlement issue; they are due to meet again this week. But it will be a messy compromise that will be time-limited and probably fall short of the complete halt in building that the administration has repeatedly sought. Similarly, Obama probably will get only two of the three actions he requested from Saudi King Abdullah when he traveled to Riyadh in June. The Saudis will privately support small concessions to Israel by four or five other Gulf states, and they have provided long-overdue financial support to the Palestinian Authority. But they are unlikely to make a public gesture of their own.

The administration believes that the sum of the measures Obama is to announce will be impressive enough to sway Israeli and Arab public opinion and energize the subsequent talks. But several Israeli and Arab officials I spoke to last week depicted the effort as a waste of the new administration's time and political capital. Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, said: "There's been a long learning process over the last six months of what can and cannot be achieved."

Maybe so -- and yet Obama and his team appear undeterred. Mitchell has been working on an outline for how the peace negotiations would proceed. Talks on this will also be tough. It's not clear whether Netanyahu's government will be willing to focus on "final status" issues; some in his government want negotiations to be aimed at creating a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who turned down a far-reaching peace proposal by Israel's previous government less than a year ago, is still insisting he won't begin talks without a complete settlement freeze. And Hamas, which governs 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, remains implacable in its refusal to recognize Israel.

The recalcitrance that Obama has already encountered is a reminder of the famous maxim of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, considered a master of Middle East diplomacy. The United States, he said in 1991, "can't want peace more than the parties." In taking on the issue now, Obama is, in essence, trying to prove that wisdom wrong. If he succeeds he will probably deserve to be called a president who can do everything.

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