Laura Rozen
Politico (Blog)
January 3, 2011 - 1:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that U.S. officials led by White House Middle East peace advisor Dennis Ross will come to Israel this week to try to revive the Middle East peace process.

Netanyahu made the announcement speaking to members of his right-wing Likud party, adding that all the parties share one goal -- “to strengthen security and reach peace,” Reuters reports.

The announcement came a day after the State Department denied an Israeli media report that Obama administration officials are fed up with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak overpromising his ability to deliver Netanyahu on the peace process.

"We have tremendous respect for Minister Barak and he remains a main channel of communication between the U.S. and Israel," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Sunday. "We will continue working with him on a full range of issues of mutual interest for both countries."

The U.S. announced last month that it was abandoning efforts to get a new Israeli West Bank settlement freeze and that it would pursue parallel sets of talks with the Israelis and Palestinians for the time being to try to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The Obama administration led by Ross had drawn up a package of inducements to try to get Israel to issue a new freeze in close consultation with Barak, but ultimately to no avail.

Middle East analysts suggested that while the report captures U.S. consternation at coming up empty-handed after near constant consultations with the Israeli government, it also reflects political maneuvering in Israel, including among members of Barak's beleaguered Labor party ahead of a Labor party summit this week. It may also reflect maneuvering inside the Obama administration to shift blame for U.S. efforts achieving so little to date.

Pressure on Barak to pull out of Netanyahu's right wing government could "precipitate a process that will dissolve the coalition," one veteran Israeli policy hand observed. Netanyahu "is putting on a charade as if there is a peace process (and Ross is coming...) because he feels Labor is on the verge of leaving the government and he knows that Barak is weak and doesn't really control his party."

The State Department said Monday that it would defer to the White House on Ross's travel, adding that U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell is currently in Washington, D.C. and doesn't have plans to travel to the region at this time.

The White House declined to discuss Ross's travel, but sources said Ross had rearranged meetings that had been scheduled in Washington for this week because he will be out of town. The NSC doesn't usually announce staff travel in advance, although the U.S. government has regularly acknowledged when NSC Senior Director for the Middle East Dan Shapiro accompanies Mitchell on trips to the Middle East.

Washington Middle East hands said the Obama administration has only itself to blame if it expected Barak to deliver his right wing prime minister given both their ideological differences and their long track records with Washington.

"Sure it is true that Barak overstated his ability to persuade Bibi," one veteran Washington Middle East hand said Sunday on condition of anonymity. "Quite frankly, that was apparent months ago. Nobody on our side should be surprised. Ultimately we only have ourselves to blame."

"More importantly, the President has correctly articulated that resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is in America's national security interests," he continued. "OK then. Do something about fulfilling our nation's security interests."

"The Secretary [Hillary Clinton], Dennis [Ross], and Rahm [Emanuel] before he left are all veterans of dealing with Barak, Bibi and most important Israeli politics," former American diplomat Aaron Miller commented. "They know Bibi's the big cheese; that Barak is one of the most unpopular politicians in Israel; and that at the end of the day trying to influence the Prime Minister's positions on final status through Barak was at best a very long shot."


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