By Janine Zacharia
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; A05
JERUSALEM -- Vice President Biden arrived in Israel on Monday to boost U.S. efforts to mediate talks between Israelis and Palestinians amid criticism that the Obama administration has set back the peace process.
Biden's four-day visit -- in addition to reassuring Israeli leaders about the U.S. commitment to curb Iran's nuclear program -- is designed to prod Israel and the Palestinians to get talks moving again. With a speech in Tel Aviv on Thursday, he will also try to court the Israeli public, some of whom felt snubbed in the past year by President Obama, who has visited Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but has yet to come to Israel.
In a major speech in Cairo last June, Obama raised expectations in the region that he would make Middle East peacemaking a top priority by promising to personally pursue Palestinian statehood "with all the patience and dedication that the task requires."
Instead, Obama is viewed here as having relegated the issue to special envoy George J. Mitchell, who announced Monday that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to indirect talks. In a sign of how fragile the peace process has become, he acknowledged that the structure and scope of the talks had not yet been agreed upon.
After so many years of direct talks that wrestled with the core issues of the future of Jerusalem, borders, security and Palestinian refugees, Mitchell's announcement felt to some observers more like a setback than a success.
"It's hardly a cause for celebration that after 17 years of direct official talks we are regressing to proximity talks," said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of a Middle East blog and a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, told Israel's Army Radio that the indirect talks were a last attempt "to save the peace process."
Mitchell, who in January boasted that a peace deal could be done within two years, said he hoped the indirect talks would lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible and encouraged the parties "to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."
Just such a thing happened Monday when Israel announced construction of 112 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit. The administration had pushed hard -- but unsuccessfully -- last year for a complete freeze on settlements, and Israel's new announcement came as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was meeting with Mitchell.
The Israeli Defense Ministry released a statement saying the units were approved before Israel agreed to a 10-month moratorium on most new settlement construction in November, a move the United States had hoped would give Abbas enough political cover to return to negotiations toward Palestinian statehood.
"Israelis and Palestinians aren't ready for direct talks; their positions are too far apart," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Indirect talks "could legitimize the U.S. role as a broker and maybe even make some headway on borders. Fact is, the Obama administration now owns these negotiations, and sooner or later they will have to get more deeply involved if they want them to succeed."
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. mediator and ambassador to Israel and Egypt who served both Democrat and Republican presidents, took a more skeptical view. He said it's "not understandable why we would now have them sit in separate rooms and move between them."
"I have been disappointed this past year with the lack of boldness and the lack of creativity and the lack of strength in our diplomacy with respect to this peace process. We have not articulated a policy, and we don't have a strategy," Kurtzer, who advised Obama's presidential campaign, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
Some analysts speculated that Biden's trip was a recognition that the administration's hands-off approach had gone on too long.
"The administration finally did understand that one of the mistakes in the course of the past year was not engaging Israel at a high enough level," Alpher said. "If the Obama administration wants to have some influence here on the Palestinian issue, it can't ignore us."
Biden's trip may not be enough to satisfy the critics.
"While we welcome Vice President Biden, a longtime friend and supporter of Israel," said Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, "we see it as nothing short of an insult that President Obama himself is not coming."