A Mideast Handshake

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

THE SUMMIT President Obama convened Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fell well short of the administration's hopes. Mr. Obama had wanted to announce agreement on the opening of talks on the creation of a Palestinian state, with a deadline of two years. He wanted to outline agreements on how those negotiations would proceed and some of the principles that would underpin them. And he expected to reveal a series of opening confidence-building measures by the two sides, including a freeze on Israeli settlement construction and steps toward normalization by several Arab states.

What Mr. Obama oversaw, instead, was little more than a photo opportunity with the two leaders -- who continue to disagree with each other and with the Obama administration over the terms of the talks. Officials said they still believe they can achieve the administration's aims in the coming weeks. But the gap between their initial hopes for the U.N. meeting and what occurred is revealing about the difficulties Mr. Obama's diplomacy is encountering -- and the miscalculations the president and his team have made.

Mr. Obama and his aides assumed that Israelis and Arab governments around the region would welcome an aggressive effort by the new U.S. president to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a practical matter, that hasn't proved true. Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing government would prefer to bolster Mr. Abbas's government economically before beginning final peace talks; Mr. Abbas himself has been preoccupied with consolidating his own authority and gaining the upper hand over the rival Hamas movement. Their rhetoric aside, leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia appear -- like Israel -- much more concerned with how the Obama administration will handle the threat of Iran.

The administration also concluded, wrongly, that obtaining an unconditional Israeli settlement freeze was an essential first step. In fact settlements are no longer a strategic obstacle to peace; as a practical matter, most of the construction is in areas that will not be part of a Palestinian state. The administration's inflexible stance, unwisely spelled out in public by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, led to an unwinnable confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu, turned Israeli public opinion against Mr. Obama and prompted Palestinians to harden their own position. The compromise now being discussed between Washington and Jerusalem will differ little from past deals.

All this is not to say that Mr. Obama should not keep trying to lay the groundwork for a Middle East peace. There are some good ideas for how Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas can begin constructive negotiations: One is to focus early on the final border between Israel and a Palestinian state, which would have the benefit of eliminating the settlement issue. Officials say the president pressed the Israeli and Palestinian leaders hard to move forward during bilateral meetings Tuesday. That's good, but Mr. Obama must also do more to convince average Israelis as well as Arab leaders that his diplomacy is worth investing in. We're told the president reminded Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas Tuesday of an old diplomatic verity: that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. That's a reality that this president, like a few before him, will have to live by.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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