Obama's Next Step in His Mideast Peace Plan

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

A Palestinian woman walks past the controversial Israeli barrier in al-Ram in the West Bank, on the outskirts of Jerusalem

The initial phase of President Barack Obama's effort to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process called for confidence-building. While the results haven't exactly inspired confidence in its prospects, Obama may have no choice but to move forward. The President's Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, is scheduled to visit the region during the week of July 20, amid reports that Washington is moving toward outlining a new negotiating process, possibly with fixed timetables for resolving issues. But the palpable distrust each side has shown of the other during Obama's initial mediation effort casts a pall of doubt over their readiness to negotiate a deal.

Recognizing the urgency of completing a two-state solution to the conflict, Obama has moved energetically to restart a peace process that petered out under the Bush Administration. The President has demanded that Israel demonstrate good faith by freezing all settlement construction outside its 1967 borders and that Arab states reciprocate by allowing Israeli commercial planes to use their airspace and by easing up on visa restrictions. Results have been less than encouraging on both counts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly rejected the demand for a total settlement freeze, and he won strong domestic political backing for insisting on "natural growth" construction in existing settlements. Mitchell's visit aims to finalize an agreement on this issue that both sides can live with — the Israelis want to complete some 2,500 housing units already under construction and exempt East Jerusalem from the freeze.

Indeed, even though a mechanism for sharing Jerusalem has been one of the "final status" issues in the peace process since Oslo, Netanyahu on July 19 responded to U.S. pressure to halt a construction project in the eastern part of the city occupied by Israel in 1967 by insisting that Israeli control over Jerusalem is non-negotiable. It's not clear what Washington will accept. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who previously insisted that there could be no exceptions with a settlement freeze, was asked on July 16 to comment on reports of a compromise. She said she was "certainly not going to step on the negotiations in any way" until their outcome was official. That comment and other indications from the Administration have led many Israelis and Palestinians to believe that Obama has been forced to backpedal somewhat.

Obama and Clinton have lately stressed that the Administration is seeking new concessions from Arab states to reciprocate for an Israeli settlement freeze, but even Washington's key allies in the region appear reluctant to reward Israel for simply complying with its obligations under the "road map" to peace proposed by President George W. Bush in 2003. Skepticism abounds in Arab capitals over Netanyahu's commitment to Palestinian statehood — a principle he reluctantly and conditionally embraced under heavy pressure from Obama, and which many believe he has no intention of implementing. His latest comments on Jerusalem will reinforce that skepticism.

But Israelis are equally skeptical about Palestinian intentions. In an interview last week, Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, poured scorn on the Obama Administration's efforts to expedite a two-state solution, saying the conflict would not end soon because the Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, lack the will to end it. "Even the moderates among them do not really want a settlement," Arad said. "At most, they are striving toward a settlement in order to renew the confrontation from a better position."

Whatever his intentions, Abbas' political weakness has effectively neutered him as an effective peace interlocutor. He is engaged in an epic power struggle with Hamas, which not only controls Gaza but also is the ruling party of the democratically elected Palestinian legislature. And his influence is waning even in his own Fatah organization. It has become conventional wisdom internationally that no credible peace process is possible without the consent of Hamas, with whom the Israelis have had to negotiate over a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. The movement's leaders believe that Israel will cut a deal with Hamas to free Shalit and ease the blockade of Gaza because both sides stand to gain from such a deal, and neither much minds if that further weakens Abbas' authority.

Egypt-mediated talks aimed at reconciling Hamas and Fatah continue, but little progress is expected because Hamas has little incentive to make the concessions that Fatah is demanding. Hamas believes it has the momentum at home and abroad. Just last week, it was revealed that Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., had met with Hamas leaders, though the Obama Administration continues to insist that it will not engage with Hamas until the organization renounces violence, recognizes Israel and abides by past agreements. (While Hamas has signaled a willingness to talk to the U.S. about finding a formula to coexist with Israel, it refuses to embrace terms that it deems a symbolic surrender.)

Meanwhile, Abbas is under pressure from Fatah leaders who openly challenge his fealty to Washington. Even in the best-case scenario of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinians are still set to hold elections in January of next year — and could very easily keep Hamas in power. (Netanyahu has insisted that he will not deal with a Palestinian government that includes the organization.)

Still, grim as the prospects for achieving agreement under the circumstances may be, the Obama Administration is all too aware that time is running out for the two-state solution. Populations on both sides of the divide have lost faith in the concept, but while Israelis are largely content to live with the status quo, Palestinians are not — and they are losing faith in the path of negotiations. The expansion of the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent years has eroded faith in the prospects for a territorially viable Palestinian state; the idea of resolving the conflict on the basis of creating two states — a concept that entered the political mainstream almost two decades ago — may have reached its expiration date.

So the Administration is expected to move to the next phase despite the obvious lack of confidence of either side in the other. That would involve defining some sort of process of talks on a timetable aimed at resolving the key questions of where to draw borders between Israel and a state of Palestine, the terms of Palestinian sovereignty, how to share Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But both sides have been through such a process before and failed to conclude a deal. For many Middle East watchers, the key question will be whether Obama sets a deadline for such talks. And what it plans to do if, as seems quite possible if not probable, the two sides fail to reach agreement.