Media Mention of ATFP in Politico - August 25, 2010 - 12:00am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement Friday of new direct Middle East peace talks will renew the sense of opportunity that had faded as the regional stalemate hardened. But the talks also renew the political peril for President Barack Obama, who once again is in the position of pledging progress that's easier to promise than to deliver.

"There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles," Clinton said in a State Department news conference Friday morning. "But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region."

Clinton said the United States believes that talks can "resolve all final-status issues ... within one year."

The ambitious — if loose — one-year deadline revived the sense of opportunity that greeted Obama's ambitious, early plunge into a relationship that had been derailed by Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip and that appeared for months to be going backward.

That failure, Obama later reflected, was one of the largest miscalculations of his first year. But the United States will enter the new talks with new assets: a stronger public relationship with Israel's hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, confidence in Palestinian efforts on the ground and an appreciation for the tedious, incremental path forward.

"What you're seeing is the result of persistent diplomacy and effort on behalf of the president, the secretary and the rest of the administration," said one senior U.S. official. "We continued to work hard and trade up and try to improve the atmosphere and the dialogue."

The announcement renews Obama's personal involvement in the complex talks, amid the global fanfare that typically accompanies presidential intervention in the Middle East. He will host a dinner Sept. 1 with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, representing the "Quartet" of key international players.

"The president's engagement and involvement in the future in these talks will be determined by developments as we move forward," White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told reporters Friday.

The planned gathering sends a signal of regional and global urgency, and the peace process will formally relaunch the next day.

The timing of the announcement will also, analysts said, inject the urgency of American politics into a process whose players follow Obama's approval numbers as closely as any American political junkie.

"What is important is the president has put some of his political marbles on the table," said Steve Cohen, author of "Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East." "Because the fact that he has set a deadline which comes right in the middle of his running for president means he is putting a lot of political eggs in this basket.

"That will have more influence on Bibi than anything he might say. Bibi follows the political issues," he said.

Another analyst, former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, said the new negotiations — driven in part by the expiration next month of Israel's moratorium on some new housing construction — could dangerously raise the stakes.

“In an effort to pre-empt one crisis, the Obama administration may be laying the seeds of another," Miller said. "If these talks reach an impasse because the gaps on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, are too big, the president will be responsible for saving them. If he can't, he will have rushed into a negotiation that's not yet ready for an agreement and forcing a moment of truth for which Israelis and Palestinians aren't yet prepared."

"The time to earn his Nobel may be coming soon," Miller said.

The resumption of talks indeed reflects little real progress on the key negotiating issues Miller listed. And there are other huge obstacles. An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program could rescramble regional politics. Gaza remains under the control of Hamas, which is deeply hostile to Israel and also the enemy of the Palestinian National Authority. But there's no clear path to dislodging it, with Israelis calling on Arab and Palestinian leaders to push the group out in new elections and others hoping that successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will either push Hamas out or drag it along.

The U.S. "bought time" with its direct talks announcement Friday, said the New America Foundation's Daniel Levy, who has pushed for the U.S. to advance its own regional agenda and to bridge the gaps between the parties.

"Proximity talks have apparently not only produced nothing by way of substantive breakthroughs, they have not even delivered a format for how the direct talks will be conducted. U.S. officials had no real answers today to questions about what happens from Sept. 3 onwards," he said.

Even staunch administration supporters were struck that Clinton's Friday announcement was noticeably short on details concerning how the talks would proceed. Several suggested the actual format for the talks and the core issues to be discussed do not appear to have yet been worked out or agreed to by the parties.

But some who watch the process closely saw reason for hope that the renewed American involvement and the new deadline would bring, if not resolution, real progress.

"The hope of a comprehensive deal within a year is a bit overly ambitious, but I think there's a chance with security and borders," said David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Jerusalem and refugees are harder," he said, because they are so central to the identities of the two sides.

"Neither leader has conditioned the societal landscape to be conducive to breakthrough," he said.

But other Washington Middle East hands said the accomplishment of getting the parties into direct negotiations shouldn't be diminished and noted that the process itself could improve the dynamic, including by locking the parties into longer-term talks in which they might be able to narrow the gaps on contentious core issues such as refugees and Jerusalem.

"I think they [the Obama administration] have been focusing in the past on actually getting the parties to the negotiations and hoping that once they are in negotiations, the dynamics will change," the American Task Force for Palestine's Ghaith al-Omari told POLITICO. "Both of them [the Israelis and Palestinians] will be locked into the process; both will have to be more responsive; the administration will have more leverage" in the process.

And the announcement is a rare piece of good news in a region where even the possibility of peace has rarely appeared since the failure of talks at the end of the Clinton administration.

“The reality is that this is a step forward and needs to be acknowledged as such," said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Toni Verstandig, now with the Aspen Institute. "It's an accomplishment to get the parties together. Once you begin to have the direct talks, you can create synergy with the issues and create an environment and begin to work through those issues."

While the Obama administration has worked intensively the past few months to improve its relations with the Israeli prime minister as well as with the Jewish community, it has also been working to give increased support to Palestinian state-building and economic development efforts. "The administration is placing a great deal of support and emphasis on continuing to support that [Palestinian state-building] initiative and effort, and that is another confidence-building tool in the administration's diplomatic toolbox," said Verstandig, who works on U.S.-Palestinian partnership issues at the Aspen Institute. "That is what diplomacy is about — creating a robust toolbox. ... That can be drawn on in tough times. And it will get tough, one needs to acknowledge."

But Verstandig said the next six weeks will be critical. The work between the announcement of the talks Friday and the gathering on Sept. 2 will be focused on the terms of reference and core issues, Verstandig continued. "That will be very important in terms of creating the right atmosphere."

"Look, we are going into [the United Nations General Assembly] in the coming weeks. There will be opportunities presented to continue to create the right ambience. The next six weeks are important as much [for creating] that ambience as [for] working through the tough issues."


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