Zahi Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
September 22, 2009 - 11:00pm
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=1066...


No concrete results were expected from Tuesday’s meeting at the United Nations that brought together US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The gathering marked the end of the first phase of Obama’s intriguing foray into Arab-Israeli peace-making.

However, I disagree with the belief that Tuesday’s meeting was mainly a photo opportunity. I think it was more a farewell souvenir photo for some of the players. I also suspect that peace among Palestinians and Israelis will not be achieved by the trio of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas. It is not clear which of them will depart the scene, but all are vulnerable.

It was exactly eight months ago that Obama, on the second day of his presidency, went to the State Department and announced both his personal commitment to Middle East peace-making and the appointment of George Mitchell as his special envoy to the peace process. The two other principals – Netanyahu and Abbas – have persisted in their traditional mode of personal behavior and policy directions. Netanyahu has dug in his heels, fortified by the knowledge that his right-wing coalition government and perhaps a small majority of Israelis share his hard-line positions, especially on resisting American pressure. Abbas and his government, heavily disconnected from their fellow citizens, are almost mystically absent from the negotiating process that will existentially define the future wellbeing of the Palestinian people.

The important question now is how the Obama team will respond to the realities it has encountered since January. These include the sharp and public Israeli resistance to Washington’s call for a total freeze on Israeli settlements and colonization of occupied Palestinian land, a limp Arab response to the American call for gestures of Arab normalization with Israel, and an unusually blunt Saudi public rejection of that call.

Obama has put his own and his country’s credibility and name on the line in his repeated demand that Israel freeze settlements unconditionally. Netanyahu responded by rejecting this, and by simultaneously expanding settlements. The United States cannot now just throw up its hands in exasperation and say that it tried and failed. What might happen next?

Obama is new to this arena, but Mitchell and some of the other Middle East hands in the administration are seasoned negotiators with direct experience in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. It seems logical to assume that Washington expected this scenario, and has multiple options to activate for phase two.

All the evidence from Obama’s character, performance in winning the presidency, and policy actions on multiple domestic and international fronts since January indicates that he does not undertake initiatives such as this lightly. Rather, he and his skilled aides calculate methodically their assets and liabilities, and then devise a strategy for success, taking into account expected resistance and setbacks. Obama faces a momentary stalemate, but is not surprised by this.

The president has moved decisively on this because he understands how Arab-Israeli peace could impact positively on several major issues he faces, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and terrorism. The Arab-Israeli conflict for Obama is just another policy challenge, like the economy, health care, the automobile industry, Iraq, Afghanistan and others, but a very high priority one in US foreign policy. On Mideast peace-making, Obama faces vicious domestic opponents who will try to unseat him. The pro-Israel groups in the US that have kept a low profile to date will now likely step up their opposition to Obama’s pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, sensing that he is vulnerable because of his multiple challenges on health insurance, Afghanistan and other pressing issues.

George Mitchell has experienced such hardball tactics before, and Obama has proven himself to be a master at strategic politics. They and their colleagues must now implement one of their fallback strategies. We have no idea what their have in mind in this respect, but I would bet the house that they – unlike two former presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – do have contingency plans and other policy options to use after phase one of their Middle East diplomacy ends in predictable stalemate.

Given his full plate of immediate policy challenges, Obama is not likely to push hard to start phase two of his Arab-Israeli peace-making project, so we should not expect any dramatic moves. More likely, I suspect, will be the emergence of a slow process where Obama clears other pressing concerns from his desk – health care and the economy should be on a good course by December – before turning to the Middle East again, probably with a different set of characters in the picture.




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