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Experts Dampen Expectations of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal


President Barack Obama met Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, who has just returned from his first official visit to the region, to discuss ways to bring stability to the Mideast.

But several prominent experts caution that the prospects are slim for a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians any time soon, despite high expectations for the Obama administration to revive the stalled talks.

New presidents typically receive a great deal of advice on what they should do, especially on the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Several leading Arab-Israeli experts gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington this week to give President Obama advice on what not to do in the region, based on the inability of past U.S. presidents to broker a lasting peace.

Robert Satloff, the Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, delivered a set of "10 commandments" on what the Obama administration should not do.

"Don't pursue the peace process for the wrong reasons. Don't pursue the peace process for illusionary, romantic reasons. The peace process is not a solution to the problem of global terrorism. The peace process will not dry up recruits to al-Qaida in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia," he said.

Satloff said the Obama administration should also learn from the mistakes of past U.S. administrations and not try to look for a "perfect" Palestinian leader.

"Don't play the Palestinian leadership game," he said. "Don't try to identify, pick, and put on a pedestal our chosen Palestinian leader. We have tried this. This is always a losing effort."

The United States supports Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with the Iranian-backed militant Islamic group Hamas.

Robert Malley is with the International Crisis Group in Washington. He has been deeply involved in the peace process, helping to organize the 2000 Camp David summit as a special assistant to former President Bill Clinton.

Malley summed up the bleak view of peace prospects held by all three panelists at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"The basic agreement, I think, is that none of us is going to recommend, and, in fact, all us will recommend against, rushing towards a grand, comprehensive, end-of-conflict deal between Israelis and Palestinians," he said. "I think you will hear that we don't think that the time is ripe at this point for an end-of-conflict, comprehensive agreement between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people."

Malley said that all of the parameters that guided the Clinton administration's peace efforts in the 1990s have shifted. He said there are no longer two coherent entities that could sign a peace treaty, if one were forged. He noted Israel's election next Tuesday, with polls showing hardliner and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the frontrunner. But Malley also cited the fact that there is no longer a national Palestinian movement with which to negotiate.

He said that during the past eight years, U.S. credibility in the region has declined.

"We no longer have the ability to be taken seriously," he said. "Now that could very quickly shift as well, and President Obama has the capacity to do so. But we can't, we can't imagine today, that simply just because the U.S. puts its imprimatur on a deal that it would be accepted."

Malley proposed that the best way to begin restoring U.S. credibility in the region would be through a massive humanitarian effort to help people living in the Gaza Strip.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas that began in December and officially ended on January 18 killed some 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. President Obama has authorized $20 million in emergency food and medical assistance to Gaza.

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has served as an adviser to six secretaries of state, said the Middle East peace process has been stalled for nearly two decades, and advised the Obama administration not to pursue what he called "big, transformative diplomacy".

"This region, as best I can understand it, hates big ideas. Particularly those big ideas imposed, crafted or orchestrated from outside. And frankly, transformative diplomacy was the essence of the previous administration's approach to this region. Regime change, democratization, grand bargains, grand rhetoric, one-size-fits-all," he said.

Instead, Miller called for "transactional diplomacy" based on small, pragmatic steps like getting Israel to open up Gaza for reconstruction efforts. Miller said President Obama should save his "big ideas" for dealing with the economic crisis in the United States, and take small, incremental steps in the Middle East.

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