AOL News Friday, August 27
Matthew Kalman ContributorJERUSALEM (Aug. 27) -- President Barack Obama has come up with a creative idea to break the logjam in Middle East peace talks when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in Washington next week.
Obama's plan is peace on credit: sign the deal now and implement it some time in the next decade. He intends to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah next year for the first time since he became president in order to push both sides into making the "painful concessions" necessary for peace.
The Obama administration has come in for flak for announcing the start of peace talks with a festive dinner in Washington next week and the aim of concluding a peace treaty within a year. Netanyahu wants to continue building settlements in the West Bank and keep control of the Jordan Valley. Abbas has no constitutional mandate and lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Neither side has a solution to the demand from some 4 million Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.
But perhaps Obama's veteran team, many of whom have been plowing away at the Middle East for so long they have become known as "the peace processors," have come up with an idea creative enough to puncture the cynicism and produce a deal.
The outline of Obama's thinking was revealed in a conference call between administration officials and U.S. Jewish leaders earlier this week.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said today that it obtained a White House transcript of the call between American Jewish leaders and Daniel Shapiro, the National Security Council's top Middle East expert, Dennis Ross, Clinton and Obama's top adviser on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and David Hale, deputy of U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
According to Yedioth, Shapiro told the Jewish leaders the president plans to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the coming year to try to convince the two sides "to support painful concessions for the sake of peace."
The call took place just before the U.S. officials arrived unannounced in the region for a final set of preparatory talks ahead of the Washington gala.
"This time, Obama plans to get into the thick of things himself," wrote Shimon Shiffer, Yedioth's veteran security analyst.
"The American administration plans to invest every effort to guarantee that the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which will be launched officially next Thursday, will end with an agreement rather than with a crisis, as in previous negotiations," Shiffer wrote. "Obama, whose approval rating has hit a new low, is interested in marking his first success in the Middle East, in light of the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The U.S. plan calls for intensive talks between four Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, which will meet at isolated sites to discuss the "core issues" of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees, with the aim of reaching agreement within a year. But that agreement would be implemented gradually over the next decade. Netanyahu and Abbas would meet frequently -- Netanyahu has suggested every two weeks -- to solve concrete problems and keep the talks on track.
In case of deadlock, U.S. officials would intervene and attempt to bridge the sides. Washington will also pressure Arab states to offer goodwill gestures to Israel and influence the Palestinians to compromise.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says something appeared to happen in the July 6 meeting between Netanyahu and Obama that led the president to believe the Israeli leader was ready for peace. Perhaps, Makovsky says, "the Israeli leader had confided in him for the first time during the meeting -- specifically, about how he envisioned the endgame with the Palestinians. Previously, Obama had expressed sympathy for Abbas' reservations about opening seemingly futile peace negotiations, but after the Netanyahu meeting, he became the leading advocate for resuming direct talks."
But not everyone is convinced the plan will work. Moty Cristal of NEST Consulting, a negotiation expert who participated in previous rounds including the disastrous Camp David summit in July 2000, tells AOL News that the American architects of this new session "didn't learn any lessons from the Camp David failure."
Cristal says the Americans are locked in a "binary view of war or peace" and continue to ignore "cultural differences in looking at the Middle East reality."
"Most Israelis understand that conflict resolution -- real genuine acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state in this area -- is nothing that can be achieved in this or the next generation," Cristal says.
He proposes instead a treaty that establishes the state of Palestine and its borders, ushering in a long period in which Israelis and Palestinians can grow accustomed to living side by side as equal neighbors in peace and security.
"The outcome of the negotiations should not be peace, conflict resolution or an end of conflict agreement. Rather, it should be conflict management and an agreement to establish the state of Palestine and define its permanent borders now with the exception of Jerusalem, which will remain an issue under dispute to be settled, just like the hundreds of kilometers of unresolved border issues between the U.S. and Canada," he says.
Cristal adds that the division of negotiators into separate teams to discuss core issues was also tried at Camp David, without success.
"Everyone who once in a lifetime participated in these negotiations understands that you cannot discuss these issues separately. You cannot discuss anything. Everything is strongly related," he says. "By saying they will split into four working groups in isolated areas, it means the Americans want to control the process and manipulate the parties. But it won't work. It's bound to fail."