Karen Deyoung, Howard Schneider
The Washington Post
November 4, 2009 - 1:00am

The Obama administration has concluded that an early resumption of high-level negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over a Palestinian state is unlikely in the near future -- an acknowledgment that it has fallen short, for now, on one of its major initial foreign policy goals.

While still pressing for face-to-face talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun to urge Arab states to encourage Palestinian participation in lower-level talks with Israel to avoid a vacuum.

"We recognize that things have stalled," Clinton spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We're looking at a variety of ways that increase interaction between the parties in some form." He described the proposals as "baby steps" that would eventually "create a momentum of their own, and the effort can pick up steam."

"If there's a vacuum," he said, "there are lots of spoilers willing to take advantage. . . . We've too often in the past seen events spiral into violence."

Netanyahu has used the baby-steps formulation to argue that cooperation on economic development and other issues would be more effective than "top-down" negotiations. Such cooperation is underway in some areas, particularly West Bask security, but Palestinians have been hesitant, in general, about the approach for fear that it would delay discussion of more basic issues such as borders.

Just six weeks ago, President Obama attempted to jump-start direct talks with a clarion call to action. "Permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon," he said in a United Nations speech. "It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward."

But Palestinian rejection last weekend of Israel's proposal to limit -- but not stop -- construction on Arab land was the culmination of months of stalemate and internal political jockeying on both sides that the administration, like so many of its predecessors, has been unable to break through.

Clinton flew to Cairo on Tuesday night from an international conference in Morocco, where Arab foreign ministers had listened skeptically to her reasons for describing the Israeli offer -- to allow unlimited construction in East Jerusalem and the completion of up to 3,000 housing units, while exercising "restraint" in the rest of the West Bank -- as "unprecedented" and worthy of discussion.

The Arabs offered little response to the lower-level engagement option Clinton outlined as a way out of the current impasse. Although she had been scheduled to return to Washington on Tuesday, following a week-long trip that began in Pakistan, she quickly arranged to travel to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom Crowley described as "one of the key figures" in the peace process.

Even as a senior administration official acknowledged that officials are "looking at adding additional modes" below the top level for talks on "final status" and other issues, he said that they "have not stopped trying" to persuade Abbas to participate and that Clinton will try to enlist Mubarak in that effort. U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell made a similar appeal Monday to Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman, and met there with Abbas before flying to Egypt to compare notes with Clinton.

In her conference remarks Tuesday morning, Clinton referred to Obama's well-received speech to the Islamic world in Cairo last summer, saying that the administration is "determined and persistent in pursuit" of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. But she appeared to chastise the Arabs for criticizing her support of the Israeli proposal. "All parties should be careful about what we say," she said, warning that "recriminations . . . [were] understandable, but we have to work together toward a shared goal."

Slowing her voice and deepening her tone, Clinton said there is a choice to be made between living in the past or building a future for the Palestinians. "I would just ask you to think about how we can each demonstrate the commitment necessary to go forward," she said.

In an interview with al-Jazeera television before leaving Morocco, Clinton expressed frustration with years of failure to make progress. Near the end of her husband's presidency, she said, the two sides "came very close" to agreement. If they had succeeded, she said, "we would not be talking about settlement activity. We would have a Palestinian state. It would have East Jerusalem as its capital. It would be working to further the interests of the Palestinian people."

Hoping to demonstrate that he could be tough on Israel, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama came into office demanding a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. To encourage Israel, Mitchell sought confidence-building concessions from the Arabs, including diplomatic and economic steps that held the promise of eventual full recognition of Israel.

The assumption was that an Israeli settlement freeze would, with U.S. encouragement, be matched by gestures toward Israel from the Arab states. Neither happened, as Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition rallied around opposition to Obama, and the Palestinians and other Arab states retreated to an underlying mistrust of Israel and, in particular, its current government.

As the administration sought help from the Arab states, "it isn't that they didn't want to act, they can't. There would be a huge political price" for doing so, said former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul-Illah Khatib, who said it was wrong to expect Arab states to "front-load the process" with concessions that would be unpopular at home, with no guarantee of results.

Abbas and Arab leaders quickly made a settlement freeze -- agreed to by Israel in the 2003 "road map" negotiating framework initiated by the West but never fully implemented -- a condition for talks, raising expectations in the region they were unable to fulfill.

In an illustration of the sensitivity of the issue, and how a slip of the tongue can portend misunderstanding, at least, and disaster, at worst, Clinton's discussion of her husband's peace efforts included a reference to a Palestinian state "with an Israeli capital in East Jerusalem." When the interview was over, her aides quietly suggested that she had misspoken. Clinton disagreed, but when they persisted, she listened to the recording. And then she retaped it.


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