Media Mention of ATFP in Politico - September 3, 2010 - 12:00am

The launch of new direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday was the result of a rare flexing of U.S. muscle by President Barack Obama, whose extended hand has left him fewer opportunities for foreign policy chest thumping than his predecessor had.

The Obama administration was able to force two reluctant adversaries to put tricky domestic politics aside and agree to show up for an unpredictable, unscripted series of meetings every two weeks, the next to be held in Egypt on September 14-15.

And Obama had an opportunity to show on the foreign policy stage the kind of dug-in patience and tenacity that to both allies and critics have defined his approach to domestic policy — particularly health care legislation — for the past 18 months.

Thursday’s beginning remains fragile and all observers cautioned that any way forward will be in stops and starts. But the two days of meetings with the Israelis, Palestinians and other key leaders left the White House exultant both at the style and the substance of a small victory a long time in coming.

“From a political perspective, it’s been a good week for [Obama] — but more importantly, it’s been a very good week for America’s national security — and that’s how he measures it,” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told POLITICO.

And as the process proceeds, it will continue to revolve around the White House, observers predicted.

“The Obama administration is really not letting go of this issue and isn’t willing to take no for an answer,” said Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “The reality is that neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinians could afford to say no — especially not before a major American election.

“The U.S. has that kind of clout,” he said. “The question is the outer limit of what the U.S. can achieve.”

Almost every major agreement in the Middle East has featured deep American involvement — as have many failed talks. The question, said former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, is whether Obama is “prepared to be the kind of mediator — tough, fair and reassuring — that it’s going to take when the time comes for American ideas, bridging proposals, parameters, or a Camp David summit.”

“This will not work without him,” Miller said.

Obama this week went further than President George W. Bush ever did in putting America’s and his own prestige on the line in search of a Mideast agreement.

Obama described the U.S. role in the negotiations as being that of a "participant" — not a "facilitator” — a former senior U.S. official noted.

"The role of 'participant' means the U.S. will be in the room, not like Bush and Condi who stayed outside the room, except on one occasion," the former official said. "So this is an upgrade, not a downgrade."

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both made thinly veiled jabs at Saudi Arabia for what American officials have complained is a reluctance to fund state-building efforts in the West Bank.

“We hear often from those voices in the region who insist that this is a top priority and yet do very little to support the work that would actually bring about a Palestinian state,” Clinton said. “Now is the opportunity to start contributing to progress.”

The show of American strength produced, from both sides, immediate demands for more American muscle.

Thursday’s agreement concerned process alone, and even there, it fell short of U.S. and Israeli hopes for a series of scheduled talks. And in a few weeks, a moratorium on Israeli construction on disputed land is due to expire, with no compromise so far on the issue, and the Palestinians threatening to drop out of the talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called again for an end to Israeli construction in his public remarks Thursday, and the Palestinians are demanding that the U.S. return to pressuring Israel on the issue. Meanwhile, Israel and its American backers say they hope the White House will apply similar pressure to the Palestinian side not to find an excuse to walk away.

“In order for these talks to succeed, the president has to maintain constant and consistent pressure on the Palestinians to stay in the talks no matter what,” said a spokesman for the pro-Israel group AIPAC. “In the last three days, we’ve seen more Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorism than in a long time, and despite those horrific events, the Israelis did not walk away from the table. The Palestinians have to match that commitment to unconditional talks.”

Two officials close to the talks, though, said the U.S. has been leaning hard on both sides to reach a compromise on the settlement issue.

The White House also has leveraged American politics — and the near-obsession in the Middle East with U.S. elections — to its advantage.

“We don’t want any mishaps between now and November,” said one person close to the talks.

Both sides are aware that the renewed talks are a rare bright spot for Obama in the lead up to the midterm elections, and neither is eager to embarrass the president or his party.

Even as Abbas was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, members of both their governments did their best to undermine them.

“Peace talks will lead to nowhere, because Hamas is the ruler on the ground, and won't let the Palestinian Authority reach an agreement,” wrote Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, a Netanyahu coalition partner, in his party’s newsletter released Thursday.

“"What is happening in Washington is a copy of the Annapolis summit — negotiations without results,” said a top official in Abbas’s Fatah party, Mohammad Dahlan.

Israeli settlers, meanwhile, broke symbolic ground in what they said was a response to Hamas’s murderous attempt to derail the talks by shooting four settlers this week.

Netanyahu and Abbas, however, left the meeting with the words and warm posture that suggested they want a deal. And Obama now finds himself in what is, for American presidents, a familiar spot.

“He’s risen to the challenge that is presented to almost every president that he’s going to engage in this high stakes issue in the region,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration foreign policy official. “It’s a moment of strength and a moment of risk.”


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