Administration plans for a sharp increase in U.S. involvement in Israel-Palestinian peacemaking in the next 30 days may be affected by President Barack Obama’s growing domestic woes and a deepening, increasingly unpopular conflict in Afghanistan.
While an updated U.S.-led road map that includes a preliminary regional peace conference and a U.S.-Israel agreement on settlements may be announced late in the month, domestic politics and a sense that Middle East conditions have not changed enough to warrant an all-out U.S. diplomatic push will likely result in a new, accelerated incrementalism, with the outcome of early efforts shaping just how far the administration will go in the months that follow.
“I don’t see a deceleration, but possibly a more cautious approach,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive
vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “There’s some stock-taking going on in the administration now, and there’s a realization the atmosphere in the region may not be there for an all-out push.”
Speculation about a very busy September comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell in London on Wednesday in one more attempt to nail down an agreement on settlement expansion, which the administration regards as a critical step in its effort to restart negotiations, and with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
On Monday State Department spokesman Ian Kelly sought to downplay expectations that a breakthrough on settlements was impending.
“We’re getting closer to an agreement,” Kelly said. “But any reports that we’ve come to an agreement, or that we expect one on Wednesday necessarily, I would have to call premature.”
The quickening pace of Middle East activity also comes in the wake of a new poll showing growing wariness about U.S. involvement in Israel.
Still, support for an active U.S. role was a relatively high 49 percent in Israel, compared to 61 percent in the Palestinian territories, according to a joint survey by the Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
For weeks, there have been rumors — but no evidence — that the administration has prepared a comprehensive “Obama plan” it will seek to impose after it becomes clear its efforts to wrest minor concessions from Israel and the Palestinians have failed.
Instead, all signs point to a more cautious, step-by-step approach — perhaps spurred by the return of Dennis Ross, a top U.S. peace process official in the 1980s and ‘90s, to a key White House position.
“There are all sorts of rumors about particular plans,” said Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist and consultant to the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “But at this stage, it may be that the administration doesn’t know exactly what it will be doing in the next six months.”
Some Arab and Muslim countries may go along with administration requests for confidence-building gestures, he said — although the Palestinians seem positioned to dig in.
Spiegel agrees with numerous analysts who predict a conference with some similarities to the 1991 Madrid conference that launched a decade of fitful peacemaking. But the new conference will be more a cheerleading session to establish a favorable climate for more detailed negotiations than an effort to tackle thorny final-status issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem, he said.
More and more, it appears the administration will pursue an incremental approach, he said.
“They will take some initial steps, see how that works, try a little of this and a little of that, and then make decisions about where to go next based on what happens,” he said.
That may ultimately result in a U.S. peace plan or some other form of more direct, directive involvement, he said — but only if conditions seem favorable.
Others aren’t so quick to dismiss the impact of domestic politics.
“Obama is a high-risk politician and wants to move on multiple fronts simultaneously, but reality is starting to apply the brakes,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “In the end, the voters run the place, and they are sending unmistakable signals that Obama needs to slow down and be less ambitious, at least until the economy improves.”
And a battered president “needs to put some wins up on the scoreboard,” Sabato said. A sweeping, risky U.S. intervention in the Middle East mess may be looking less attractive as the president faces possible losses on key domestic priorities.
Middle East peacemaking “has vexed every president since Harry Truman, intermittent breakthroughs notwithstanding,” Sabato said. “How many high-stakes gambles can one president take?”
An equally potent factor in putting the brakes on dramatic new U.S. initiatives may be the worsening situation in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been engaged for eight years — with no end in sight, and with public support for the war plummeting.
But in the end, the biggest factor producing caution at the White House may be a growing recognition of the pitfalls and complexities of Middle East peacemaking, starting with the shaky commitment of the parties themselves.
“The real challenge facing the administration are the huge obstacles that stand in the way,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran State Department peace process official and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The chances for a conflict-ending resolution is somewhere around zero with this Palestinian Authority and this Israeli government.”
Still, he said it’s likely the administration “in the next six to nine weeks will have some sort of achievement.”
That could include a “formal agreement between the government of Israel and the U.S. on settlements, which takes the restrictions [on settlement growth] further than any other Israeli government has ever gone,” and a “Madrid-plus meeting at which negotiations will be resumed,” he said.
Miller also predicts the effort will be “good enough to get the Arabs to do ‘stuff,’ because the choice for them is clear: you either work with Obama, or you hang a ‘closed for the season’ sign on U.S. involvement.”
But if conditions warrant, Miller thinks the administration may ultimately go further.
“What I think they have in mind: after a decent interval of allowing the parties to negotiate, they will offer their own bridging proposals or even something more ambitious — ‘Obama’ parameters.”
Miller agrees that a beleaguered administration needs to worry about the risk of failure — but that there is also a growing awareness that time is running out for a two-state solution.
“On President Obama’s watch either the two-state solution will be implemented — or it will come to an end,” he said. “The overwhelming reality is that you can stamp ‘perishable’ on the concept of a two-state solution.”
Administration critics see something else: a president who seems to be confirming predictions that his inexperience would lead to big mistakes at home and abroad.
“The shortcomings and inexperience of the Obama administration are starting to tell,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “He has bitten off more than he can chew on domestic matters; he has shown real ineptitude in delegating to Congress the writing of cap-and-trade and health care legislation.”
And its Mideast policy has “put the onus on Israel and fed the disastrous Arab policy of passivity,” he said.
Still, Lieber holds out hope.
“President Obama has an enormous capacity to learn, and they have some very capable people on the team now, not the least of whom is Dennis Ross,” he said. “That suggests to me that policy adaptation could be forthcoming.”