Vita Bekker
The National
July 29, 2009 - 12:00am

The Obama administration appeared to step up its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East this week, as a series of high-profile US officials descended on the region in what commentators described as a concerted bid by the US president to find a far-reaching solution for Arab-Israeli peace.

“The new thing in the Obama approach is that it is comprehensive,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister who currently co-edits, an Israeli-Palestinian online opinion journal. He added: “Obama is trying to talk to everybody.

“It indicates seriousness and determination and an understanding of the inter-linkages of the different problems in the Middle East.”

Indeed, the US was at the forefront of regional diplomatic activity this week.

The parade of senior officials included George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, James Jones, national security adviser, and Dennis Ross, head of Middle East policy at the national security council.

Mr Mitchell, who included Syria, Egypt, Israel and the occupied West Bank in his regional tour, repeated throughout his journey that Israel, the Palestinians and Arab countries must all take steps that may be difficult and controversial towards a comprehensive peace agreement.

By comprehensive, Mr Mitchell said that Mr Obama aimed for peace pacts between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon in deals that would also encompass “full normalisation” of relations between Israel and all its neighbours.

For the Obama administration, the thorny issue of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory appears to be a hurdle that must be overcome to reach such a comprehensive peace.

Since taking office, Mr Obama has taken a tougher stance than his predecessor in criticising Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, urging the country’s right-wing government to freeze all construction. Palestinian leaders have refused to renew negotiations with Israel until the building stops. However, Benjamin Netanyahu, the hardline prime minister, has insisted that Israel will continue constructing homes for growing families in the territory Palestinians view as part of their future state. Mr Khatib, the Palestinian commentator, described the settlement issue as a “deal-breaker” for Palestinian statehood, long a core goal of the international community. He said: “The continuity of settlement expansion creates a reality that jeopardises the possibility of two states.

“The two-state solution is the only way of making peace in this region.”

According to analysts, the US demand for a stop to settlement activity was not only part of a broader strategy by Mr Obama to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian talks, but also to persuade Arab states to make gestures towards normalised ties with Israel.

Aluf Benn, the diplomatic affairs commentator for Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, said: “I am sure the US is working on a package and the key goal is not the settlement freeze but resuming the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians on one hand and Israel and Syria and Lebanon on the other hand.”

Mr Benn stated that the Obama administration was likely planning to present its official – though “rough” – outline for a comprehensive peace plan as early as September, in time for the opening of the UN General Assembly and the G20 summit scheduled for that month.

Mr Benn said he expected Mr Obama’s plan to set a deadline of about 18 months for a negotiating process between Israelis and Palestinians which the US president would pledge to vigorously broker. That would be a break from the Bush administration, he said, which left most of the negotiations to the conflicted sides instead of playing a key mediation role.

He added: “The main focus will be Israel and the Palestinians but there may be some effort on the Israeli-Syrian front as well. Obama will present it as part of a broader package of talking to the Arab street and talking to Muslims.”

However, analysts said the Obama administration’s efforts face insurmountable challenges. After all, Mr Netanyahu will have a hard time getting his predominantly right-wing cabinet to support any freeze on settlements, even temporarily.

Furthermore, the deep rift between the two leading rival Palestinian factions – the Islamic Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement, which holds sway over the West Bank, has yet to heal as Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks have stalled. Mr Khatib said: “The two main obstacles for the Obama strategy in the Middle East are the internal political realities in both Israel and Palestine. The Americans have to influence these two respective realities, including convincing Israel to stop expanding settlements and to influence the success of the national dialogue between the different Palestinian factions.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017