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Experts Divided on Likelihood of Obama Bringing Middle East Peace


The leaders of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are due in Washington over the next three weeks. Their talks with President Barack Obama reflect the importance the administration has placed on finding a peaceful solution to the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. But Mideast experts differ on the president's chances for success.

President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell, says conflicts are created by human beings and can also be resolved by human beings. But a trio of experts at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington believes time is running out for even the most dedicated human beings to find a peaceful resolution.

The Obama administration is working on a new approach to a comprehensive Mideast peace deal - a gradual process in which a step forward by one side, such as a halt to new settlements by Israel, is matched by a step from the other side, such as an Arab move toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Aaron Miller, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, says even with this fresh approach, Obama needs to follow a proven tactic that produced agreements in the past.

"Any American president, if he is going to succeed in the Arab-Israeli negotiation, is going to have a way of providing reassurances to both Arabs and Israelis, and Palestinians as well," he says. "And in critical stages of negotiations brings pressure as well. It is not just about pressure. It's about reassurance and pressure, incentives and disincentives. [Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger did it that way. [Former President Jimmy] Carter did it that way. [Former Secretary of State James] Baker did it that way, and if Obama is going to succeed, he will have to do it that way as well."

The United States is pursuing what's called the two-state solution - an independent Palestine living in peace next to a secure Israel.

But Shai Feldman, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, says President Obama may have a difficult time reassuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a Palestinian state will not compromise Israeli security.

"The problem we have is that when people have the concept of a state in mind, they think a state has to have an army; it has to have complete control of its airspace; it has to have unhindered control over its exit and entry points. And given Israel's security requirements, the Palestinian sovereignty would have to be compromised. I can even see a situation where Netanyahu comes here and says these things, and the president says, 'I don't see this is necessarily contradicting the principle of two states.'"

Ghaith Al-Omari agrees that the definition of a state is at the core of the problem. But the former policy adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says leaving the definition vague is a necessary diplomatic strategy.

"In terms of the Obama administration's concept of the two-state solution, I think there isn't one specifically, and I think that's the right position to be in. I think ultimately the two sides would decide what is the two-state solution. The two-state solution is the solution that is sellable to both publics. And I think the U.S. should get its cue from the parties themselves."

The three experts agree that no breakdown in the Middle East peace efforts is imminent, but Shai Feldman warns that failure to move beyond the status quo could have dire consequences.

"If there is no progress and there is more and more disappointments and disillusionment and a sense that, in reality, things are moving in the direction of what Israel is referring to as a "one-state solution," then I think the degree of discontent among Palestinians would probably result in another wave of violence."

That is the same warning given by Jordan's King Abdullah, who is promoting an even bolder peace between Israel and all the world's Muslim nations, and who met recently with President Obama to discuss it. The price of failure in the Middle East is well-known, and experts say that knowledge is driving the Obama administration's urgent focus on moving the peace process forward.

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