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Obama's New Push for Peace in the Middle East:
Will the Stars Align?

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, September 2010

President Barack Obama was frustrated by the lack of progress in getting the Israelis and Palestinians to start peace talks. In July 2010, after more than a year, he and Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in the Oval office and decided to try again harder. They needed each other at this point. Netanyahu needed to assure the Israelis that the special relationship with Washington is unimpaired. Obama needed to improve relations with Israel to convince Jewish Americans to vote for Democrats in the tight mid-term elections. Both leaders agreed to begin direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in September prior to the expiration of the settlement freeze in the West Bank.

Muhammad Dahlan, a Palestinian Authority official, told Asharq Al-Awsat (London) that Abbas was pressured by the U.S. to switch from indirect to direct talks because of “internal conflicts and [George] Mitchell's failure to convince Netanyahu to make progress on any subject.” He added that Abbas “went to negotiations because of the Arab League, not because of his personal opinion.” Saudi Arabia, one of the major financial backers of the Palestinian Authority, nudged Abbas to participate in the talks. Abbas wanted to negotiate but reiterated his insistence on extending the freeze on settlements beyond September 26 and on starting negotiations where they left off in December 2008. Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the two Arab governments recognizing Israel, were invited to attend the opening ceremony. But the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, Russia, and the U.N.), the partners of the earlier Bush-sponsored road map for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, were not invited. The European Union and the U.N. Secretary General supported the resumption of the direct talks.

On September 2, the day before the direct talks, Obama met separately with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He urged them to seize this opportunity to end the decades-long conflict and pledged to throw his administration's “full weight behind their effort to do so.” In the Rose Garden, he scolded the Israelis and the Arabs for failing to help bring about a Palestinian state. He stressed, however, that only Netanyahu and Abbas “could make the compromises necessary to secure peace between their peoples.”

On September 2, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders also met with Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell at the State Department. The meeting went well as Netanyahu and Abbas expressed their support for two states and agreed “to resolve all of the core issues within one year.” As an initial step, they agreed to reach a framework agreement, detailing “the fundamental compromises necessary to enable the parties to then flesh out and complete a comprehensive agreement that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace,” according to Mitchell. Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser on the Middle East, has warned that “efforts to force the parties to announce their bottom lines in advance of the final agreement will never succeed.” Obama's strategy is different from that of Bush and Bill Clinton who put off tackling the toughest issues until the very end of the talks. Unlike his predecessors who only got the U.S. involved in the last stage of the talks, the Obama administration intends to be present at the negotiating sessions to help move the process forward. Here again, Abrams thinks “it is a grave mistake: The Israelis and Palestinians do not negotiate seriously when U.S. officials are in the room; instead they take positions designed to illicit American approval.”

Netanyahu and Abbas have scheduled the next meeting for September 14 and 15 to be held in the Middle East, likely at Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt. Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, and possibly the Quartet officials will be attending. Mitchell said that the parties would like to keep the talks “private and treated with sensitivity.” Afterwards, Netanyahu and Abbas, along with their teams, will meet every two weeks to keep the momentum going. It seemed that the ice was broken. After the meeting with Clinton and Mitchell in the State Department, Netanyahu and Abbas met alone for ninety minutes and, according to an Israeli official, the meeting went “fairly well.”

Obama has achieved a temporary success because he got Netanyahu and Abbas to meet face-to-face and to start direct talks. It is the first time the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had direct talks in two years. Even so, the prospect is that Obama is embarking on a mission impossible, trying to solve the decades-long Mideast conflict once and for all. This goal has eluded many U.S. presidents. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton tried to secure a lasting peace at the end of their terms but they both ran out of time. Obama is in a better position, however, because he started his effort at the beginning of his presidency. At the U.S. State Department, Clinton told Netanyahu and Abbas that the success of their effort is in the U.S. national security interest. She added that “we cannot and we will not impose a solution.”

Many observers wonder whether the Obama administration will be able to achieve its goal of creating a Palestinian state and a secure Israel. The road ahead is full of hurdles. The most immediate hurdle is whether Netanyahu extends the moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, due to expire on September 26, 2010. To the Palestinians, it is a test to show whether the Israeli leader is serious about finding a way to settle the conflict. Netanyahu has remained silent on the issue. He is between a rock and hard place because his fragile right-wing government includes hard-line members who have threatened to quit the cabinet if he does, “potentially collapsing it.” Abbas also made it known that “he might withdraw from the nascent talks, if Netanyahu doesn't.”

A second hurdle is the divisiveness among the Palestinian. While Fatah reluctantly supports negotiations, Hamas is against it and intends to disrupt the process. Abbas might lose the support of his own group if Israel does not continue the freeze on settlement construction beyond September 26th. Palestinian leaders have been involved in endless talks since Oslo in 1993 without making any progress to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Even if the settlement freeze is extended, there are many other contentious issues, including the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return to their homes, shared use of scarce water resources, the nature of the Palestinian state, borders, and Israel's security, that might once again stand in the way of reaching a lasting peace. However, it is possible that the stars will finally align to end the bloody conflict and suffering. Obama is ready to invest time and efforts to promote peace. It is up to Netanyahu and Abbas to save the new generations from the tragic cycle of violence that is their shared history.

Mohamed El-Khawas
, Ph.D., is Professor of history and political science at the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. 20008.