Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
September 1, 2010 - 12:00am

Conventional wisdom says that President Barack Obama will not seriously pressure Israelis and Palestinians in their peace negotiations before the United States’ mid-term congressional elections in November, for fear that the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby might hurt the Democrats and perhaps give the Republicans control of the House of Representatives. Well, conventional wisdom will be put to the test in a serious way this week, as Obama participates in the first session of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington on Thursday.

Mideast policy has been one of the more intriguing preoccupations of the Obama administration since it took office 20 months ago, full of dynamism and rhetoric, but with few results to show for it. Six principal issues often get confused in this context, and though they are linked they should be separated because each proceeds according to its own timetable, with different degrees of success: the US disengagement from Iraq, Arab-Israeli talks, Syria-Lebanon-Hizbullah issues, Iran, anti-terrorism policy, and outreach to Islamic societies.

Obama focused on Arab-Israeli diplomacy quickly and forcefully upon taking office. He re-engaged Washington in the negotiations in a direct and sustained manner, through the respected former senator, George Mitchell. He boldly pushed Israel to freeze its settlements and asked the Arabs to make gestures of recognition or normalization toward Israel. Obama was rebuffed on both counts, getting from Israel a partial, eight-month freeze on some construction. He then regrouped and successfully pushed the principals to hold proximity talks mediated by the US, and he will now host direct negotiations in the US capital. These are not the actions of a flippant man or government, but they have achieved only procedural steps forward.

The US until now has remained silent about what it believes constitutes a fair peace agreement with regard to critical issues such borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. If the direct talks reflect well-known positions of both sides, they will quickly reach stalemate, requiring strong intervention by the US. That will likely happen soon, when the Israeli partial settlement freeze expires later this month.

The US will have to react substantively at that point, offering ideas that both sides can live with. The Obama administration’s track record on this has been very thin, because it seems to have shunned offering substantive positions or suggestions. Yet it clearly must have ideas on those core issues that will be negotiated, and it knows that at some point it must move beyond logistical facilitation and get more deeply involved in the negotiations through two possible means: suggesting bridging proposals on key issues or even proposing a complete peace accord that responds to the needs of both sides; or using political muscle to cajole them into moving toward an agreement. Both these options run the risk of antagonizing pro-Israel groups, which conventional wisdom says will not happen in an election year.

Allowing the talks to fail is also a possibility, but not an attractive one to an administration that has invested heavily in this issue and needs policy successes to counter anti-Obama and anti-Democrat attacks at home. Yet failure is a real possibility, given the enormous constraints that hem in the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and structural deficiencies like the fact that the Palestinian negotiators have limited legitimacy because they do not represent Hamas and other key Palestinian constituencies.

So why is the US making this high-stakes move at a time when so many elements seem lined up against the chances for success – and at a moment when domestic political forces in the US associated with the pro-Israel lobby can exert maximal pressure to constrain Washington’s room for maneuver and thus negate its critical perception as a fair mediator? It would seem that the moment of reckoning for US mediation effort is very near. Perhaps the strategy is to get the direct talks moving, exert the utmost mediating energy by trying to narrow gaps in the positions on both sides, and wait until December and beyond before starting to really pressure both sides.

This seems unrealistic, though, because Washington may not have this much time to use, if the settlements freeze issue intervenes and creates a crisis. So the US may have to be forceful this month, but that is hard because of the November elections, and in any case the US has shown no signs of desiring to come down hard on matters of substance when faced with resistance by Israelis and Palestinians. The only logical conclusion from the evidence at hand and the experience of the last 20 months is that if we look to Washington to break this stalemate, we are probably looking in the wrong place. We should soon find out.


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