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Obama Trip Renews Debate over Israeli-Palestinian Solution

  • Pamela Dockins

President Barack Obama gestures during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 21, 2013.

President Barack Obama gestures during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 21, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have re-ignited the prospect of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, after meeting with officials on both sides in the region.

During his trip to the Middle East last week, Obama urged Israel and the Palestinians to begin direct talks on the core issues of a peace agreement. But some analysts say neither side may be ready for full-fledged talks in the near future.

Natan Sachs, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the president's trip was a resounding success in terms of public diplomacy. But he told VOA's Encounter program Israel and the Palestinians are reluctant right now to take the "bold steps" that could lead to change.

"Pessimism and skepticism about the possibility of a two-state solution in the near future is shared by everyone, Palestinians, Israelis and all of the parties in the region for a variety of reasons," said Sachs.

He said those reasons include domestic politics and the extreme volatility in the region, especially in Syria and Egypt, which border Israel.

American Task Force on Palestine Executive Director Gaith al-Omari told VOA that Palestinians were heartened to hear Obama's commitment to a two state-solution, a prospect supported by his Washington-based group. But he said Palestinians remain skeptical about Obama's positions on other issues.

"There are remaining concerns about President Obama’s stance on the Palestinian U.N. bid, on his inability to deliver on a settlement freeze," said al-Omari.

Palestinians have long opposed Israel’s construction of settlements on land they want for a future state.

Obama drew applause last week when he addressed the settlement-building issue during a speech to Israeli students.

"Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn," he said.

Despite of the support from students, al-Omari said the issue of settlement building remains a sticking point for negotiators.

"The Palestinians will not go back to negotiations in a meaningful way without a settlement freeze, and the Israelis will not give a settlement freeze," he said.

As a result, al-Omari said negotiators should not spend too much "political capital" on trying to re-start talks on the issue that would go nowhere in the short term.

"Let us focus on less controversial issues, on areas where there is intersection of interest between Palestinians and Israelis, like security coordination in the West Bank, like creating more breathing space for Palestinians in the West Bank, and do some progress there," said al-Omari.

He said talks on less controversial issues may shift public sentiment and enable more serious negotiations within a year or two.

Sachs said the make-up of Israel's new governing coalition could turn out to be another obstacle to moving talks forward. The governing coalition includes the Jewish Home Party, a far-right group headed by a young entrepreneur, Naftali Bennett.

"Naftali Bennett is not coy about his opposition to a two-state solution. He is very adamantly opposed to it and it is very unlikely that this coalition could sign a real deal or even move very dramatically in that direction," said Sachs.

He said the "good news" is this is not a U.S. problem, but a problem for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said the U.S. should continue to advance its own agenda.

Al-Omari says as the debate continues, Palestinians are waiting to see what action will result from the renewed U.S. public commitment to peace.

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