Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Obama Pushing Ahead On Mideast Talks

Obama must be pretty anxious about those poll numbers at home--now he is pushing hard on the Mideast 'peace process':

Washington will announce the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through a trilateral summit of U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The meeting would take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly late this month; two years would be allotted to completing talks on a peace agreement.

Apparently the proposed negotiations will have one key similarity with the key bills that have passed to stimulate the economy and that has been proposed to 'save' health care: no one knows exactly what the plan is:

European and Israeli diplomats told Haaretz that Mitchell and other top Washington officials said "Obama has no new peace plan," but only that the diplomatic outline is different from the so-called Annapolis process and is based on several guiding principles.

First is that talks will advance according to the Middle East road map. Second, the target for completing negotiations will be two years from now. Third, unlike the Annapolis process, the United States will take a more active role in the talks and will "take a seat at the negotiating table."

The fact that the target date is 2 years from now makes sense if the Road Map is actually going to be followed. The problem is going to be the first step: Abbas stopping the terrorist attacks on Israel that come from the Al Aqsa Brigade, which is affiliated with Fatah. Will Obama actually hold to all of the requirements of the Road Map, or just those that apply to Israel?

Also, the idea that the US is going to "take a seat at the negotiating table" is not reassuring, now that considering Obama's Cairo speech and demands about Israeli settlements, the US can no longer be considered a neutral party. The news that Obama himself intends to be moderating the conference is not good news. The pressure will be on Netanyahu to see to it that Obama, whose inexperience in office has become obvious, is not embarrassed. Apparently, Obama is taking a more active role here than he did in the stimulus plan to save the US economy.

On the other hand, to its credit, the US does appear to have achieved some level of Arab agreement towards normalization of relations with Israel:

Meanwhile, the American officials said they had achieved a series of normalization steps by Arab states toward Israel, though Saudi Arabia had declined to commit to any goodwill gestures toward Israel. Instead, it is transferring several hundred million dollars to the authorities in Ramallah.

One European diplomat said Qatar would reopen the Israeli diplomatic mission in Doha, and several other states will allow direct flights from Israel through their airspace and to their airports. Several Persian Gulf states also agreed to grant tourist visas to Israeli tourists and businesspeople.

One possible bump in the road to Obama's proposed conference is still the issue of the settlements. On the one hand, there are hints of a compromise:

The Obama administration appears to be backing down on its insistence that Israel halt all settlement activity as a condition for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

While U.S. officials insist their position on the matter has not changed, they are now hinting that a less blanket moratorium would be acceptable provided the Palestinians and Arab states agree.

...[State Department spokesman P.J.] Crowley and other U.S. officials denied Israeli media reports that Mitchell had agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the agreement and settle for a nine- to 12-month freeze in the West Bank only that would also allow the completion of projects already under construction.

However, diplomats familiar with talks say that the administration has signaled it might be able to accept an "understanding" on East Jerusalem that would entail an Israeli promise not to take "any provocative actions" there.

On the other hand, Abbas seems content to continue to sit on the sidelines and make demands without offering anything in return:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will reject any U.S. invitation to resume peace talks with Israel unless Washington persuades Israel to freeze settlement activity, an aide said on Monday.

Nabil Shaath said only a full settlement freeze without exceptions or "loopholes" and an Israeli commitment to establishing a Palestinian state would be enough to bring Abbas back to the negotiating table.

Shaath told foreign correspondents in Ramallah the reaffirmed position of the central committee of Abbas's Fatah party was that a halt to Jewish settlement must be implemented throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem and not be limited by "artificial" timeframes.

It is hard to be optimistic that anything good can come from this, especially when Israel's 'peace partner' has expressed his being satisfied to sitting on the sidelines and let Obama do his work for him.

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