An administration bruised by its rough reception from Israeli leaders and frustrated that its overtures to Arab and Muslim countries have produced disappointing results may be significantly scaling back its Middle East peace plans.
Sources here say the administration will begin speaking more directly to the Israeli people in an effort to reverse what even some doves say was a mistaken emphasis on speaking to the Arab and Islamic worlds, while mostly ignoring the Israelis.
At the same time, the administration will more openly express and explain what it wants from the Palestinians and other Arab players in the region.
That follows months of preliminary talks between regional leaders and U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell, who hinted at the new administration approach in a New York Times interview Monday.
“What we could be seeing is a return to good old American incrementalism,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “I don’t think they’ve changed their goals, but they are clearly scaling back the reality of how much they can accomplish right away.”
That’s not good news to left-of-center Jewish groups, which had hoped for a much more muscular U.S. effort to push Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace table.
While none agreed to address the issue on the record, several leading Jewish doves expressed anxiety about a possible limiting of U.S. peace aspirations.
“There’s a lot of discussion in the peace camp about whether this is a smart and pragmatic move — or whether it represents a strategic shift away from the president’s earlier priorities and a return to what seems like an endless focus on confidence-building measures,” said an official with one dovish group.
“I think the administration is going about this carefully and generally in the right way,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and now a consultant to the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “But there can be a problem in taking too long to lay the groundwork. This is the Middle East, and so many things can erupt to throw things off course.”
U.S. policymakers got a hint of that possibility this week as Palestinian leaders warned of renewed violence.
“Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law,” said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a speech to this week’s Fatah conference — comments that to some raise the specter of a third intifada unless rapid progress toward Palestinian statehood is made.
This week, Israeli officials leaked to reporters their expectation that a major new U.S. peace plan will be tabled until sometime in the fall — a claim that could not be confirmed here in Washington.
On Tuesday Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “in the coming weeks their plan will be formulated and presented to the two parties,” according to the newspaper Haaretz. “I believe that Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan.”
There is also talk of an international peace conference in the fall intended to push Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace table.
But while administration officials remain tight-lipped about the extent of any new U.S. initiative, most observers say it will be constrained by the fact that preliminary rounds have produced few concessions from Israel — and fewer still from the Palestinians and their Arab supporters.
While Arab leaders have been flocking to Washington demanding dramatic U.S. action instead of demands for more confidence-building measures, a likelier result is a ramped-up U.S. focus on addressing public opinion in the region.
Lewis said that to an extent, a PR campaign makes sense.
“There’s something to the argument that since you’re dealing with a democratic country when you’re dealing with Israel, a skillful public relations campaign from Washington might be useful,” he said. “That’s true with the Arabs, to a degree, as well, but the impact is not as direct. So there could be some utility in more explanation about what could come out of a successful peace process.”
At a recent meeting with Jewish leaders, President Barack Obama was told in no uncertain terms that it’s the perception in Israel — and among the pro-Israel leadership — that his administration is demanding far more of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragile, right-of-center government that it is asking of the Palestinians and the Arab states, at least publicly.
In a strong editorial last week, the Washington Post uncharacteristically criticized the administration’s overarching focus on pressing for a total settlement freeze, saying that “one of the more striking results of the Obama administration’s first six months is that only one country has worse relations with the United States than it did in January: Israel. … For nearly three months it has been locked in a public confrontation with Israel over Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
The results, the editorial went on, have included a hardening of Palestinian demands and diminished support for U.S.-led peace efforts in Israel.
Analysts across the political spectrum say the administration has realized some of its early failures and intends to change course by refocusing on the need to lay the groundwork for new peace efforts.
“It’s clearly a tactical retreat,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “It comes from a lot of people saying the same thing to the administration: that they’ve scared the Israelis off, and they have to fix that if they hope to make progress in the future. It’s a tactical, not a strategic, retreat.”
An official with a pro-peace process group who asked not to be identified agreed. “There’s little question the administration made a mistake by putting so much emphasis on a complete settlement freeze — even though we, too, believe Israel should be pushed to fulfill its obligations on settlements. I think they understand that now, and are slowing down a little and beginning a new effort to prepare the ground. That could involve a speech directly to the Israeli people, interviews with Middle Eastern media from both sides and more visits from top administration officials, and possibly a visit to Israel by the president himself.”
But in the long term, pumped-up PR efforts will prove meaningless unless followed by more direct peace efforts, said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs for the Institute of World Affairs.
“If all we’re talking about is speeches, it’s another way of ducking the problem,” she said. “There has to be a map of where this process is going to end; there has to be something concrete. The U.S. has to develop a document that spells out everything the parties have agreed to. And then we have to introduce some American ideas and work them back and forth between the parties.”
But most Washington observers say the administration, chastened by the president’s sinking standing in Israeli polls and the slammed doors he’s encountered when asking for help from the Arab states, is edging away from an all-out peace push.
Instead, the focus is likely to be on generating confidence-building measures by the Palestinians and the Arab states to match Israeli actions in accepting some kind of settlement freeze and limits on building in Jerusalem.
“Attempts to get normalization gestures at this point may be a useful exercise,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. “The idea of broadening the circle to include the Arab states, to put the Arab peace initiative back into the picture, to talk about a reciprocity formula from the Arab states in return for a settlement freeze — that makes sense. That is part of setting the table.”
What’s not clear, he said: what will be the main course once the dinner is served.
Levy said a good place to start would be a U.S.-led negotiation over the borders of a future Palestinian state — “to delineate two states, where Israel ends and the Palestinian states begins. Settlements can’t be solved now — so you pivot, and focus on borders.”
But there’s no evidence that is what the administration has in mind — or that either the Israelis or Palestinians are particularly interested.