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Obama Mideast Peace Plan in the Works?

The Obama administration appears to be considering launching a major push later this year to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much to the displeasure of the Likudniks and neocons.

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Inter Press Service

Amid still-unresolved tensions over Jewish settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, two major publications reported Wednesday that President Barack Obama is seriously considering proposing later this year a U.S. peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times reported on a Mar. 24 meeting between Obama and former national security advisers who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and who expressed support for launching a U.S. initiative designed to break the longstanding deadlock and achieve a two-state solution.

The meeting, which was organised by Obama’s national security adviser, ret. Gen. James Jones, reportedly reached a consensus that the failure so far to make tangible progress toward a peace agreement was harming U.S. security interests throughout the region, including efforts to isolate Iran and other anti-Western forces, and that the Israelis and Palestinians were unlikely to reach a comprehensive agreement by themselves.

Putting forward a U.S. proposal, presumably based largely on understandings reached between the two sides at negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba, Egypt, in early 2001, would mark a major departure in U.S. policy, which has long insisted that final peace terms can only be arrived at by the parties themselves.

Such an initiative would likely be strongly opposed by the right-wing government of President Binyamin Netanyahu and its supporters here. Indeed, the latter wasted little time in denouncing the idea of advancing a U.S. plan as “dangerous”.

“Palestinians will conclude that they have no reason to negotiate seriously, or to make concessions, when Obama may deliver what they want on a nice platter while Israelis will conclude that Washington no longer takes their security seriously, so they must toughen their stance,” wrote Elliott Abrams, former President George W. Bush’s top Middle East adviser on the neo-conservative Weekly Standard website.

The two reports come amid continuing tensions between the Obama administration and Netanyahu that were set off last month when the Israelis announced the approval of a new construction project in Arab East Jerusalem during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden (see also Leon Hadar, “No Tea Parties for Bibi,” Right Web, April 1, 2010).

In unusually harsh language, Biden publicly “condemned” the Israeli action. His remarks were then followed by a call to Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who reportedly demanded not only that Israel freeze Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, but also that it immediately agree to discuss with the Palestinians so-called “final status” issues, including final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who visited Washington for the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the following week, remained publicly defiant, although, during subsequent meetings with Obama himself and Clinton, he reportedly tried to appease the administration’s concerns. His efforts, however, have failed to satisfy the White House, which indicated this week that Netanyahu, one of 46 foreign heads of state scheduled to attend a summit on safeguarding nuclear materials here next week, had not yet been cleared for a much-sought-after bilateral meeting with Obama.

The harder line taken by the administration is attributed by analysts here not only to the anger provoked by Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem, but also by the growing conviction, particularly in the Pentagon, that the failure to make tangible progress in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was jeopardising U.S. security interests – and the lives of U.S. servicemen and women – throughout the region, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Israeli media reports, Biden made precisely that point with Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials behind closed doors during his visit.

In Congressional testimony a week later, the chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, echoed that message, noting that “The (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel.”

He added that the Arab-Israeli conflict had an “enormous effect” on “the strategic context in which we operate,” and that a “credible U.S. effort on Arab-Israeli issues that provides regional governments and populations a way to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the disputes would undercut Iran’s policy of militant ‘resistance,’ which the Iranian regime and insurgent groups have been free to exploit.”

A similar message was conveyed as well during Obama’s Mar. 24 meeting with the former national security advisers, who agreed that the “incremental” approach taken by Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell was unlikely to bear fruit, according to the Times and Post accounts.

Brent Scowcroft, who served under presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, was the first to urge Obama to launch a peace initiative. He was followed by Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Both men have long called publicly for Washington to put forward its own plan for a comprehensive peace based largely on the Camp David and Taba parameters.

According to the Post account, which was written by columnist David Ignatius, they were joined by Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, and by Colin Powell, who served in the same position under Ronald Reagan and as secretary of state under George W. Bush. Frank Carlucci and Robert McFarlane, who also served under Reagan, reportedly went along with the consensus view.

The Times account, written by White House correspondent Helene Cooper, quoted a senior administration official as saying that a U.S. plan was “absolutely not on the table right now”, and that Washington remained committed for now to the “proximity talks” that are to be mediated by Mitchell. But, he said, when those bogged down, “then you can expect that we would go in with something”.

Ignatius, who wrote a book with Brzezinski and Scowcroft, quoted one official as saying the White House is considering an inter-agency review process similar to the one carried out last year on Afghanistan and Pakistan, to “frame the strategy and form a political consensus for it.” The same official said it could be launched in the fall.

“It means they’re questioning some of the assumptions they inherited,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and co-director of the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation.

“It seems they’ve realised that some of those assumptions – that the Israelis and Palestinians could do this on their own; that they could gradually, incrementally build confidence between the parties without addressing the big questions – may have been wrong,” he said.

“What’s remarkable is that it was what the neo-conservatives did to the U.S. under Bush and what Bibi Netanyahu did for Israel in the last year that has produced this moment of clarity,” Levy noted.

“The neo-cons helped clarify what so much of the national-security establishment, including Centcom and the former national security advisers, has been saying – that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to U.S. security interests throughout the region, while Netanyahu helped clarify how entrenched Israel’s addiction to settlements and occupation is and that incrementalism has no chance in the face of that addiction. You therefore need an assertive intervention.” 

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/) He blogs at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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