Matt Spetalnick
Reuters (Analysis)
August 30, 2010 - 12:00am

When President Barack Obama finally brings Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table this week, it will mark not only his deepest foray into Middle East peacemaking but also his riskiest.

In a congressional election year, Obama is putting his presidential prestige on the line with a hands-on push for Middle East peace despite broad skepticism about his chances for success where so many of his predecessors have failed.

Bringing the two sides to Washington to relaunch face-to-face talks and commit to an ambitious effort to forge a peace deal within 12 months raises the stakes for Obama in tackling one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

"Obama is sending the message that he's ready to put his political capital on the table," said Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. "The question is whether other parties are ready to risk anything."

Analysts say Obama's renewed Middle East diplomacy could also have wider implications, affecting his efforts to isolate nuclear-defiant Iran and fix U.S. ties with the Muslim world.

What makes it a gamble domestically, however, is that Obama is weighing in ahead of pivotal U.S. midterm elections in November and his own re-election bid in 2012.

In a political season dominated by economic concerns, diplomatic progress on the Middle East issue would still be a plus for a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize more for speechmaking than tangible achievements and continues to struggle for foreign policy credibility.

But Obama, already beset by low approval ratings amid public anxiety over the sputtering economy, will have to tread carefully. He must be wary that if he pushes Israel too hard for concessions he risks alienating its broad base of support among U.S. voters.

And if the U.S.-brokered peace effort comes crashing down as many have before, Obama's Republican critics will inevitably accuse him of promising more than he could deliver.

Underscoring the daunting challenges, negotiations could stall as soon as Sept. 26 when Israel's 10-month partial freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank expires. With the Palestinians vowing to quit the talks unless the moratorium is extended, Obama's aides are scrambling.


Despite that, a return to direct talks for the first time in 20 months marks a fragile accomplishment for the Obama administration, which until recently had stumbled its way through Mideast diplomacy with little to show for its efforts.

Obama had pledged to address the festering conflict early in his presidency and stay involved, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was widely accused of neglecting the issue for most of his tenure. The Obama administration sees peace moves as especially crucial to marshaling Arab support against Iran's influence.

To jump-start the process, Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for separate meetings on Wednesday, followed by a dinner that will include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Netanyahu and Abbas will sit down together on Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who insisted last week that all major issues could be resolved in a year on a deal to establish a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.

After decades of hostility and failed diplomacy, Israelis and Palestinians are deeply pessimistic, and analysts agree the chances of success in such a tight time frame are slim.

Some experts question the wisdom of trying to rush negotiations on flashpoint issues like the future of Jerusalem, recalling how the collapse of peace talks at end of the Clinton administration in 2000 helped fuel the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Mindful of the risks, the White House is trying to keep expectations low. No one is predicting a quick breakthrough in negotiations, and administration officials caution that the peace-in-a-year target is a goal, not a deadline.

There will also be little of the ceremonial pomp that accompanied Bush's 44-nation Annapolis conference in 2007 when he launched a final -- and ultimately fruitless -- peace bid in his last year in office.

Still, experts are not writing off Obama's peace summit. "There's no magical quick fix, but presidential visibility can help create momentum," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The consensus, however, is that Netanyahu and Abbas are coming to the table not because of narrowed differences but because neither wants to be seen by Obama as the spoiler.

Netanyahu's room to bargain will be limited by pro-settler partners in his coalition, and Abbas is politically weak because of Hamas Islamists controlling the Gaza Strip.

Obama may have to overcome questions about his own commitment to sustained engagement, given that he is already juggling priorities ranging from high U.S. unemployment to the troubled war effort in Afghanistan.

With top aides tasked with the heavy lifting, the White House has been vague on how much of a role Obama will take. "The president's engagement and involvement in the future in these talks will be determined by developments as we move forward," his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said.

Speculation is Obama might make his first presidential visit to the region next year if it can help secure concessions.

But it is unclear whether Obama would ever resort to the intense, arm-twisting role that Bill Clinton undertook unsuccessfully in the twilight of his presidency or put forth a peace plan of his own if all else fails.


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