Hassan Barari
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
January 26, 2010 - 1:00am

The long-awaited tour of American envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell consisted of much fanfare but yielded no tangible results to speak of.

Both parties to the conflict refused to budge: the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to join the peace process until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees to freeze settlement activity, and the Israeli government refuses to meet this Palestinian demand, considering it an unacceptable precondition.

The outcome is pretty obvious; barring any last minute change of mind on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians, Mitchell’s attempt to jumpstart negotiations is destined to fail.

It seems that conditions are not yet conducive to a proper and genuine resumption of the peace process.

Mitchell’s inability to shake the peace process coincided with US President Barack Obama’s admission that he might have overestimated his ability to convince the conflicting parties to move forward. In an interview with Time magazine, Obama reportedly said that his ignorance regarding the huge impediments to peace made him unwittingly raise expectations amongst the Palestinians and the Arabs.

That is true. It was Obama who first made it clear that a resumption of the peace process entailed Israel’s freezing of all settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Abbas picked up this position and is holding on to it. Abbas will have difficult retreating from this position, particularly in light of the current split within the Palestinian body politic.

Obama’s mistake of raising expectations has made it equally difficult for Arab states not to back the Palestinians who see their land shrinking on daily basis. The Arab leaders who meet in a summit in two months’ time are expected to take a stand on what Arabs claim is Israeli intransigence.

The Arabs’ perspective is pretty straight: once Israel agrees to freeze all form of settlement activities they will be more than willing to sit at the negotiating table. All they want right now is to prevent Israel from continuing its policy of changing realities on the ground. To them, it is only Israel who is foiling the prospects for peace and undermining the American efforts to bring about change in the Middle East.

The Israeli government, on the other hand, cannot accept what it sees as Arabs’ or Palestinians’ preconditions and concurrently survive politically. To many, these two objectives are just incompatible.

That said, many make the case that Netanyahu has the option of reshuffling his Cabinet and bringing Kadima into his coalition. A move in this direction is set to change the dynamics within the coalition and may well weaken the radical right, which appears to hijack the government.

Can the process be left at the mercy of Palestinian imperatives or Israeli political constraints? Perhaps, the American administration can rethink its approach, but without presidential investment, the local parties might undermine the process.

During the Clinton administration, the president invested personally and chalked up great success, although he failed towards the end of his second term to bring about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Will history repeat itself?

Obama can still move in a way that can make a difference. He has ample time to achieve what others have failed to do, yet internal problems and issues weigh more on his agenda than the Arab-Israeli conflict. It remains to be seen how the Democrats’ loss in Massachusetts is going to affect the president’s attention and whether this will weaken Mitchell’s standing in this part of the world.


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