MIDEAST: Obama Steers the Peace Train On

  • Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Thursday, August 27, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

That's the upshot of Wednesday's London meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, and Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mitchell is set to come to Jerusalem in a fortnight's time with the goal of finalising an agreement on both an Israeli settlement freeze and the consequent re-igniting of direct peace talks.

But, who's running the peace process imbroglio?

The Palestinians are highly sceptical.

Yes, we agree to a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, but that doesn't constitute the start of formal talks, is the official Palestinian position.

'What exactly will we be negotiating about,' asked caustically Sufian Abu- Zaida, a prominent Palestinian official on Israel Radio. 'You Israelis have laid down all the pre-conditions and you refuse to tackle the substantive issues.'

Palestinian affairs analysts are even more damning about the prospects of the talks going anywhere.

'It is good to have hope. It is much better to be realistic. I fear that much of the talk about 'jump-starting' the peace process remains handicapped by relying on the same old techniques and approaches that have been tried many times and always failed,' argues Rami Khoury, a leading commentator on Middle East affairs in his syndicated column.

'The determination of the Obama administration to push for an Arab-Israeli peace will go nowhere if the various initiatives and gestures by all concerned continue to dance around the central issues of the conflict, rather than to attack them head-on,' Khoury cautions.

The Israeli prime minister, in contrast, is very much cock-of-the-hoop.

Netanyahu has been under sniper fire from his far-right constituency about even contemplating any kind of settlement freeze. Yet, he believes he can weather that storm, especially since he's confident he has outmanoeuvred what has until now been an unyielding U.S. demand for a total halt to settlement building.

Indeed, according to both Israeli and U.S. sources, the agreement in-the- making will not include Israeli building inside occupied East Jerusalem, and that the temporary freeze - reportedly for nine months at most - on construction in the West Bank settlements will exclude some 2,500 apartments on which building has already begun.

Netanyahu aides are also parading as 'success' the U.S. readiness to link Israel's 'concession' on settlements to a more resolute U.S.-led Western effort to curb Iran's nuclear programme.

This buoyancy on the part of the Israeli leader has exacerbated Palestinian and Arab fears that, when the talks do get under way, it will again be Israel calling the shots, not the U.S.

Says one Palestinian spokesperson, requesting anonymity: 'I just hope this is not a repeat of the Camp David debacle' (the fruitless attempt by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 2000 to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli settlement which ended in failure, with Palestinians charging that Clinton had allowed Israel's then leader, Ehud Barak, to try to railroad them into an unacceptable deal).

But is the Israeli tail really wagging the U.S. dog once more, as Palestinians have long charged, especially during the eight-year peace paralysis under the Bush Administration?

On the face of it, there may indeed be similarities to previous U.S.-mediated peace initiatives. Still, the current drive does hold out realistic hope that, this time, things may take a different turn and be more attuned not only to Israeli security needs, but also to Palestinian national needs:

- Eventually, the settlement freeze might fall some way short of what Obama had originally insisted. This is, however, the first time ever that the U.S. has managed to make peace talks absolutely conditional on an Israeli policy shift on the arch-symbol of Occupation, and, what's more, by the most ultra- nationalist government Israel has ever had.

- Even though Netanyahu insists Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem cannot be compromised, what Israel does in the occupied part of the city is now under more rigorous scrutiny than ever.

- Because of Obama's insistence, Netanyahu has already given way - albeit grudgingly - on the vision of a two-state solution as the only way to reach a just peace. Nor has U.S. contempt for the iniquity of continued occupation been fuzzed, as it often was by past Administrations.

- Concern for Palestinian human security has been given equal status with consideration of Israel's security.

- The U.S. is not content with an innocuous dance around confidence- building measures for its own sake, or with dealing with spurious questions over which side needs first to fulfil its obligations before serious negotiations can begin.

- The U.S. is committed, as the Palestinians insist, that talks immediately tackle the core issues - borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The U.S. is also unlikely to be swayed by Netanyahu's demand that he will not accept the other core issues on the table unless the Palestinians accept Israel's identity as a Jewish state (Israeli exclusion of the possibility of any refugees being allowed to return to within its borders).

- Most significantly, the Obama approach is comprehensive and all- embracing. Obama is the first U.S. leader to embrace the Arab League peace initiative of 2002 so that getting Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace constitutes the foundation of a total regional peace. Camp David came unstuck in the reluctance of the Arab world to support a separate Palestinian-Israeli peace.

There have been timetables in previous U.S.-brokered peace plans. But when Washington now talks of realistically seeking a full peace within two years, it sounds anything but idle talk.

What is even more encouraging is the lack of fanfare with which the U.S. is tying together the knots of a comprehensive strategy. Its prospects may even be enhanced if the President's renowned high-flown rhetoric is kept further under wraps.

The onus is still on the U.S. to prove that it is up to the task of translating this into practical dividends.

But, even at this early stage, there is less cause for Palestinian pessimism. And, collaterally, less reason for Netanyahu's over-arching confidence.

Until proven otherwise, Obama is still driving this peace train.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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