Rami Khouri
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
October 30, 2009 - 12:00am

A month after US President Barack Obama met in New York with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week gave him the progress report on Arab-Israeli peace making that he had requested.

As expected, it said that very slight progress has been made and that the hard work of resuming meaningful peace negotiations remained ahead.

It has been exactly nine months since Obama took office with a pledge to personally work for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and the scorecard of results on that pledge looks rather thin and dim. More negatives than positives define the situation, but elements of both can be gleaned from a review of what the Obama administration’s new policy of active mediation has achieved.

On the positive side, the main element is that the United States has recalibrated its own role and has tried to be an active, persistent and more even-handed mediator. It has publicly demanded that both sides make immediate moves to revive an environment conducive to peace talks - a full settlement freeze from Israel, and gestures of normalisation from the Arabs.

The clarity of US aims and its own role is offset by huge unknowns, about four critical elements. We do not know:

a) If this issue will remain a priority for long or get lost among the compromises Obama will have to make to succeed on some of the key issues he is tackling at home and abroad.

b) What Obama’s positions are on substantive issues, like refugees, Jerusalem, borders and others.

c) Whether the demands for a settlement freeze and normalisation will continue to be the centrepiece of initial US mediation efforts.

d) How the United States will respond to maintain credibility in the face of Israeli and Arab reluctance to give in to these American demands.

The American diplomatic drive seems a peculiarly solo event, with little apparent participation by Arab, European or other countries that must play a vital role in order for this to succeed.

Russia and China are becoming more important players in the region, especially because of their energy connections with Iran. Other important regional actors and dynamics remain in flux, such as the Syrian-Israeli, Saudi-Syrian, or American-Iranian relationships, and these have enormous potential to stimulate or stall the Arab-Israeli peace-making effort.

The main players are also evolving. Netanyahu is both stronger and weaker in resisting the US call to freeze settlements. He is stronger at home for standing up to the United States, yet he is weaker in the negotiations process because all his attempts to divert or stall the process have been rejected. These include making Iran a greater priority than Israel-Palestine; focusing on economic progress or Salam Fayyad’s Palestinian state-building plan; securing Arab acceptance of Israel as a “Jewish state”; stressing Palestinian security moves and commitments to Israel before anything else happens, or asking for unconditional talks without any prior commitments or gestures.

He remains publicly, if half-heartedly, committed to negotiating towards a two-state solution, as the United States and the Palestinians want, while his own preferences have been aired and quietly shelved. This required time, and is probably the most important achievement to date of George Mitchell’s persistent diplomatic efforts.

The United States appears realistically to be making the best of the stalemate, by using time as an element to remove diversionary issues and getting all parties to focus on the core aim of negotiating a comprehensive peace based on two states.

Mahmoud Abbas is weaker than he was nine months ago and the Palestinian side remains badly divided between Hamas and Fateh. Hamas continues to assert itself as an important player and must be included in a future reconfigured Palestinian government, though it has also become clear that Hamas is a minority party among all Palestinians, enjoying around 15-20 per cent popular support.

The United States is not pushing too hard because it knows that no progress will be made while the Palestinians remain divided as they are now. Relegitimising the entire Palestinian governance system must occur in the next nine months - presidency, parliament, Cabinet, security services and the councils of the Palestine Liberation Organisation - before any meaningful diplomacy with Israel can occur.

The balance sheet of the last nine months suggests that the United States is committed to playing the role of a persistent, activist and more even-handed mediator, but the principal parties in Israel and the Arab world are not willing or able to accept the initial American demands to prod the process forward.

The next nine months are a make-or-break period in which all parties will have to make clear if they are serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace and how they approach this issue. Much will depend on whether the United States persists in its mediating role or quietly gives up and focuses on other issues.


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