Akiva Eldar
Haaretz (Analysis)
January 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Exactly a year after trumpeting the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama is holding Israel and the Palestinians equally responsible for the stalemate in the peace process.

In an interview with Time magazine marking his first year in the White House, Obama said neither side has been willing to make the bold gestures necessary to move the process forward.

A senior minister told Haaretz Thursday that the chances of renewing the peace talks are "slim." According to the minister, Mitchell's present mission is not likely to succeed either, as he will probably not persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renew the negotiations over the permanent status settlement. Nor is he likely to receive from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a clear answer as to whether he is ready to adopt U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's formula to base Israel's permanent borders on the 1967 lines.

The results of Mitchell's meetings this week with Netanyahu and Abbas will determine whether Washington continues the efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiations table.

One possibility being examined is a shuttle diplomacy similar to Henry Kissinger's method of paving the way to the Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Egypt and Syria in the mid 1970s. However, more than 16 years after the Oslo Accords were signed without American involvement, the Americans are not keen to give up the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiation format for proximity talks like the Olmert government held with Syria, with Turkey's mediation.

Netanyahu has recently been trying to persuade the American administration that due to the rivalry with Abbas, he is not prepared to reach an agreement involving difficult Israeli concessions. Netanyahu proposed focusing the American efforts on drafting sanctions on Iran.

However, the Time interview shows that Obama has not bought the prime minister's contention that Israel has moved a long way toward the Palestinians by freezing settlement construction. Netanyahu blames Abbas for setting unreasonable conditions for resuming talks.

Obama spoke in the same breath about the political environment and nature of the coalitions, and gaps in the Israeli and Palestinian societies, which make it difficult to jump-start a significant dialogue.

One can detect a hint of criticism of Netanyahu, who prefers a right-wing coalition to partnership with Kadima, which represents more central positions. On the other hand, heavy American pressure on Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have put an end to the attempt to set up a Fatah-Hamas unity government.

Speaking about the Arab world's intolerance to the peace process, Obama aimed is criticism mainly at Saudi Arabia. He was expressing his disappointment from King Abdullah's refusal to offer Israel gestures of normalization in a bid to muster public support for the peace process.

Obama was surprised by the force of the Saudis' support in freezing the construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem completely. The Americans fear that in the absence of progress in the next few weeks, Arab leaders like the Syrian president may suspend the Arab peace initiative in the Arab summit in Tripoli in two months.

Diplomatic sources say that in view of the dead end in the Palestinian track and the American interest to stabilize the Iraq-Syria border, Obama may lend an attentive ear to Israeli figures Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, who are trying to persuade the Americans to unblock the Syrian track.

This could be Obama's alternative to the approach of James Baker, who reminded Yitzhak Shamir of the White House's telephone number and told him to call when he was serious about peace.


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