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US-MIDEAST: A Week of Dimming Peace Prospects

WASHINGTON, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - Eight months after Barack Obama launched his presidency by promising a speedy push for Palestinian-Israeli peace, that effort has stalled badly. And there are now growing fears that the top levels of Obama’s peace team are torn by internal disagreements that may undermine the whole peace effort.

Some of these problems were on view during two high-level appearances Obama made in New York this week.

On Tuesday, speaking to the media after the three-way meeting he held with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama notably avoided saying anything about the failure of the high-profile campaign he and his chief peace envoy, George Mitchell, have pursued to “persuade” the Israeli government to stop building settlement housing in the occupied West Bank.

Obama instead announced a new project: the resumption of the long-suspended negotiations between the parties over the terms of their final peace.

Most observers – in Palestine, Israel, and the U.S. – interpreted Tuesday’s events as marking two distinct victories for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama had in effect been forced to abandon his campaign for a settlement freeze. And Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the interim Palestinian Authority (PA), was forced to meet with Netanyahu despite previously vowing he would not negotiate with him until the freeze was in place.


For some pro-peace Americans, one bright spot in Tuesday’s encounter was that Obama spelled out to the media that peace is a key interest not just for the parties directly involved, but also for the United States.

In his big speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama pledged his public commitment to the pursuit – though tellingly, not the speedy attainment – of a “just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world.”

He also said, “We continue to emphasise that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

However, numerous commentators in both the Arab world and in Israel’s much-diminished “peace camp” noted that since Obama has never moved beyond words in his push to freeze settlement construction, there seemed little reason to hope he would do so in his pursuit of the broader peace settlement, either.

Meanwhile, there have been worrying signs of discord among the team consisting of Obama and top peace-team members. One well-connected Arab observer told IPS that he judged that Obama’s shift in focus from the settlement freeze to the final-status issue signaled the president’s frustration with the approach that Mitchell has used until now.

This observer said he judged Mitchell had paid too much attention to pushing for the settlement freeze, which was only ever seen as an interim step. It was described by Mitchell and others as part of a package – along with some sweeteners from Arab states -that would help build initial confidence between the parties.

But both Netanyahu and the most powerful Arab states balked at providing what Mitchell asked for. Meanwhile, many valuable months have been wasted – months during which settlement building has continued with little pause.

The Arab observer said his understanding of Mitchell’s approach, as demonstrated in his successful mediation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, was that it involved having negotiators from the warring parties participate in lengthy face-to-face encounters during which their fears and distrust could slowly be melted away.

Another Washington analyst has observed that that approach may have been helpful in Northern Ireland, or South Africa, where the aim was to help warring parties find a way to live together over the long term within a single state.

“But in the case of Israel and Palestine, we’re talking about a divorce,” she said. “All these two need to talk about is the terms of that divorce, and how to do it in a way that works.”

Additional evidence of high-level discord in the White House came in an interview Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, gave to television host Charlie Rose Wednesday night.

Just the day before, Obama had spelled out that peace is “in the interests of the United States”. But Emanuel told Rose a couple of times that the U.S. “can’t want peace more than [the parties] want it”.

That was a formula frequently used during the Clinton and Bush II administrations to signify that, if a difference should emerge between Washington and Israel over the peace diplomacy, then Washington would back down.

Regarding the next steps in the U.S.-led diplomacy, Obama said Tuesday that he had asked Netanyahu and Abbas to send their negotiators to Washington “next week”, and he had asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report to him on the status of these negotiations in mid-October.

Maan News reported from Israeli-occupied Bethlehem today that Abbas’s top negotiator, Saeb Erakat, would be participating in the talks, due to start Oct. 1.

In Washington Friday, veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi warned that Obama’s failure to win the settlement freeze and the extreme reluctance he showed toward holding Israel in any way accountable for its defiance had weakened not only Obama’s standing among Palestinians and other Arabs, but also that of Mahmoud Abbas.

“The whole process Obama has gone through until now has lost Abu Mazen a lot of credibility with the Palestinian people,” she said, using the name Palestinians use for Abbas.

“For Palestinians it’s very important that our leadership not constantly be the one to give in,” she said.

Ashrawi, who was a member of the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid peace talks, said she thought Obama’s speech to General Assembly Wednesday seemed to “salvage” his policy somewhat. “So, he said the right thing there,” she said. “But now we need to see if he can make the right moves.”

She judged that the latest developments in the diplomacy had weakened Abbas significantly among all sectors of the Palestinian people – including with the grassroots in his own party, Fatah.

For their part, the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas issued a statement Thursday that urged Abbbas and Fatah to “stop deceiving and misleading the Palestinian people by attaching more hopes on the ‘useless’ negotiations with the Israelis.” The Hamas statement also strongly criticised Obama’s “obvious” bias toward the Israelis.

Fatah and Hamas will be sending high-level emissaries to Cairo on Sunday to take part in yet another in the long series of reconciliation they have held over recent months.

There are few signs yet that the upcoming round of talks will succeed where so many others have failed.

With those two big Palestinian movements still at loggerheads, the Obama administration apparently split and anyway unwilling to confront Israel on key issues, and Israel’s peace movement now a mere shadow of its former vibrant self, the prospects for rapid success in the diplomacy look very dim.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org

 
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