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US Renews Push for Middle East Negotiations

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U.S. President Barack Obama began his presidency a year ago with the promise to make Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a high priority.  So far, little has been done to get the two sides back to the negotiating table – until now.

This week both U.S. Middle East envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, and President Obama’s national security adviser, retired General Jim Jones, traveled abroad to rally international support for reviving negotiations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the new diplomatic push in motion, saying it’s time to realize two “competing goals” – for the Palestinians, an independent and viable state, and for Israel, secure and recognized borders.
   
Skepticism about the Prospects

Observers of the situation have heard these calls before. “Most Israelis are skeptical about the prospects for talks any time soon,” said Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward.   Even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear in recent months that he is interested in restarting negotiations with the Palestinians, Guttman said Israeli public opinion finds Washington’s goal of reaching an agreement in two years unrealistic.
 
A good place to start cobbling together a new agreement is on the issue of establishing borders. “Many people think that borders are the best place to start because, surprisingly enough, borders are easier to agree on,” Guttman said.  Since the Camp David talks in 2000, Israelis and Palestinians have recognized that the 1967 border between Israel and Palestine would serve as a guideline.
 
“There would be territorial swaps that would enable Israel to annex the big settlement blocks in the West Bank and in return give the Palestinians other pieces of land from Israeli territory,” Guttman explained.  That could happen if both sides would be willing to put aside bigger problems such as refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem.  And that, said Guttman, is a big “IF.”

Hope in Some Quarters

Others hold out hope that some progress can be made, given Washington’s new approach to the region.  “I think the Obama administration realizes they wasted a year insisting that Israel should freeze the settlements before entering into negotiations, and now they realize that time is running out,” said Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center.
 
“If both sides can sit down at the table and decide what a Palestinian state would look like, then they might ultimately find a solution to the other issues – the settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees,” Bilbassy suggested.  “There was a report,” she said,  that “Washington might give letters of guarantee to both sides – that final status issues would be discussed and the purpose of negotiations would not be talking just for the sake of talking.”

Domestic Politics: the Deal Breaker

British journalist Ian Williams points out negotiations would face another huge hurdle – internal politics. “Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is under fire from his domestic constituency,” said Williams.   And he said that makes it very difficult – if not impossible – for Abbas to give up his insistence that the freeze on Israeli settlements must be total.
 
On the other side, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also faces enormous pressure from both his conservative coalition and from the settlers, who object to any preconditions for negotiations.
   
Williams said President Obama would also face a serious dilemma if he were to apply the kind of pressure to Israel that President George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker did.
   
Williams asks: “If the United States keeps on giving loan guarantees to Israel and giving them unlimited diplomatic support while Israel basically spits in the face of the U.S. President, what hope is there for the Palestinians in negotiations?”    Given that, he adds, the prospects are dim. “They are facing the world superpower, which is behaving in a totally supine way.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has pressing domestic challenges of its own, including an economic recession, high unemployment, and a health care debate in the Congress.   Those issues, said Williams, are compounded by the president’s opposition in Congress. Senators Joseph Lieberman, a strong supporter of Israel, and Senator John McCain, President Obama’s opponent in the last election, have both visited Israel recently expressing support for its settlement policy. The message is implicit: Congress will prevent the President from exerting any pressure on Israel. ‘No way will the U.S. Congress support any financial sanctions on Israel!’ said Williams.

However, that point of view does not do justice to the concessions the Netanyahu government has already made. “First of all, Israel did agree to a partial settlement freeze,” Guttmann notes.   “Maybe it’s not what the [Obama] administration wanted, but it is significant,” he says.

Guttmann says perhaps a more important concession, and one made under pressure from Washington, was the acknowledgement by the Israeli government of the need for a two-state solution.  “Some of us may have forgotten, but Netanyahu came into office last year, saying that he wasn’t willing to accept the notion of a two-state solution – and now he is,” Guttmann said.

Despite these small glimmers of hope, analysts remind us of the history between Israel and the Palestinians and the issues that still remain.  Most suggest the remaining constraints point to a political stalemate. Still, people on all sides of the issue expect the U.S. administration to pursue its goal of restarting negotiations, albeit small step by small step.  

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