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Correction to This Article
A Nov. 5 A-section article on the Obama administration's efforts in the Middle East incorrectly said that Daniel Levy is affiliated with the Century Foundation. He is director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation.
Administration missteps hamper Mideast efforts

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

President Obama came into office insisting that his administration would press hard and fast to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after nine months, analysts and diplomats say, the administration's efforts have faltered in part because of its own missteps.

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear during her Middle East trip, which ended Wednesday, U.S. officials are now promoting new tactics -- what they called the "baby steps" of lower-level talks -- to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for direct talks.

But the dynamics have changed since Obama named a special envoy to the region on his second day in office and tried to make a fresh start. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom the administration once would have been happy to see undermined, has been strengthened -- while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the administration had hoped to bolster, has been weakened.

"There was an excess of zeal at first," said Edward S. Walker Jr., who was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton administration. "It is a noble endeavor to try to hammer out peace. But you have to look at the relationships. You have to read the players. They got out in front of studying the problem and were anxious to show progress."

Daniel Levy, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator now at the Century Foundation in Washington, summed up the administration's efforts in recent days as "amateur night at the Apollo Theater." He said the administration did not game out the consequences of its demands on the parties -- and then flinched. "They just dug deeper and deeper their own grave," he said. "All of this talk of negotiations doesn't cut the mustard in the region."

To be sure, Mideast diplomacy is always difficult; it is especially so when the Israeli government leans to the right and the Palestinian government is deeply split between a secular party in the West Bank and an Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip. A solution to end the conflict has eluded U.S. administrations for decades -- and President George W. Bush was heavily criticized for largely ignoring the problem until his final months in office.

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Abbas aide who is advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, said, "The situation is so complicated that no matter what approach the administration would have taken would have led to difficulties." He said that things have improved in the past nine months, including getting a reluctant Israeli government to embrace the idea of talks. Negotiations will begin eventually, he said, because the Obama administration has signaled that it will not waver in pursuit of direct talks.

U.S. officials also insist that much progress has been made behind the scenes and that the administration remains undaunted in the face of current obstacles.

"I am not someone who is in any way affected by difficulty, who is living in a world apart from the real world in which we inhabit, where it takes just an enormous amount of effort to get to where we are headed," Clinton said in Cairo. "The two-state solution is one of the most difficult."

The administration's key error, many analysts say, was to insist that Israel immediately freeze all settlement growth in Palestinian-occupied territories. The United States has never accepted the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, but the Obama administration took an unusually tough stance. It refused to acknowledge an unwritten agreement between Israel and Bush to limit growth in settlements, with Clinton leading the charge to demand a full settlement freeze.

U.S. officials say that in the wake of the war in the Gaza Strip in the winter, they wanted to send a signal of toughness and push both sides to take positive steps to build an atmosphere for talks. By that measure, there has been some progress: Israelis and Palestinians have been deep in conversations trying to set the parameters for negotiations.

But Abbas, emboldened by the U.S. rhetoric, announced that he would not begin negotiations until settlements were frozen. Facing Israeli opposition, the administration appeared to back off the demand for a full settlement freeze, first exempting East Jerusalem and then signaling approval of an Israeli plan to exempt nearly 3,000 housing units on the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Abbas got into political trouble at home when he succumbed to U.S. pressure to delay U.N. consideration of a report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza; he later reversed himself. When Clinton met him Saturday and pressed him to accept the limited Israeli settlement plan as a basis for talks, he refused.

Hours later, Clinton met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and pronounced the Israeli offer "unprecedented" -- sparking Arab outrage, which she spent the next several days trying to dampen. She extended her trip to include a stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to explain the U.S. position.

"Our policy on settlements has not changed," Clinton insisted Wednesday. The Israeli proposal "is not what we prefer," she said, "because we would like to see everything ended forever. But it is something that shows at least a positive movement."

Elliott Abrams, a former White House aide who helped negotiate the unwritten agreement on settlements in the Bush years, said there is little difference between that agreement and what Clinton claimed as unprecedented. "It really is the same deal that presumably could have been had on January 20," he said.

Instead of demanding an unrealistic freeze, Abrams said, the administration could have made the Bush deal public, noted that Israel had not consistently lived up to it and declared that it would now be enforced. "Instead, we had nine months of nonsense," he said. "Palestinians and Israelis are not sure what the United States stands for."

Administration officials dispute that critique, saying the Israeli offer actually holds the key to a real settlement freeze. If negotiations progress, Israel would come under fierce pressure not to lift the moratorium after it ends in nine to 12 months. So, once the grandfathered units have been completed, officials said, construction would end -- and a real settlement freeze would be in place.

Such nuances are lost now in the sands of Middle East rhetoric. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, mused Wednesday about the end of the dream of a Palestinian state and scoffed at the Obama administration's notion of baby steps to talks. "As to the baby steps, we begun taking them in 1990-1991, and we have been crawling for 19 years," he said. "We need youthful steps to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Cairo and correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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