Tuesday, 13 April 2010

No shoulder shrugging by Obama

Once again – as so many times in the past – an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, sailing off in reasonably high hopes, has run out of wind and is becalmed. It's a pattern that has become wearisomely familiar over the decades. Equally familiar is the way the US presidents involved on each occasion – George Bush the elder, Blll Clinton, George W Bush – have run out of time, shrugged their shoulders and let matters rest. The Madrid peace conference, the Oslo peace accords, the Hebron agreement, the Wye River memorandum, the Camp David proposals, the Quartet road map – to name only some – have come, left something of a legacy, and gone, and with them the US presidents concerned.

This time, the pattern seems to have taken a strangely unfamiliar turn. Yes, the proximity talks that were due by now to be well under way, are bogged down, and neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side seem in any hurry to see them get under way. On the Israeli side, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still considering the list of demands thrust at him by President Obama a few weeks ago, described as essential for establishing the conditions for the proximity talks to get going.

For his part, Mahmoud Abbas has taken refuge behind Washington's demand that Israel cancel the proposed 1600-apartment building project in the Ramat Shlomo suburb of Jerusalem. Until this condition is met, he is now saying, he is disinclined to engage in the proximity talks.

But President Obama is not shrugging his shoulders. Unlike his predecessors, he came to office with a Middle East peace accord high on his agenda. And unlike his predecessors, he approached this element of his overall strategy with the firm intention of mending fences and rebuilding trust with the Muslim world. During his first year in office he appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East with a clear remit to work towards a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East".

Mitchell himself, during an early visit to Syria, elaborated what was meant by "comprehensive". He said he was seeking peace agreements not only between Israel and the Palestinians (we all know that), but also between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon. A tall order indeed, but even so not quite tall enough for the White House. "And it also includes," added Mitchell, "the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states."

In my piece "An American Peace Plan?" (8 April), I gave details of the report by journalist David Ignatius of a meeting on 24 March between the president and seven former and current national security advisers. At this meeting, Ignatius said, the idea was mooted that President Obama might propose his own solution to the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Further details of what might be afoot are now emerging. Reports speak of a possible new US peace initiative, multilateral in approach and embracing all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, not just Palestinians and Israelis. The initiative would combine the 2000 Camp David proposals and the 2002 Arab peace plan, and add various points which have subsequently been discussed.

Ignatius now says that the more activist among the advisers at the 24 March meeting argued that the step-by-step approach favoured by George Mitchell has failed, and that even if proximity talks get off the ground, they will quickly fail. The way forward, they advised, was a grand gesture, a major peace push, before the end of Obama's first term.

The essential elements of a possible peace plan have become obvious during the long series of peace initiatives over the years – issues like the final shape of an Israeli Jerusalem and a possible Palestinian Al-Quds; the administration of the holy places in the Old City; Israel's return to its 1967 borders, modified by agreed land swaps to allow some at least of the West Bank settlements to remain in Israeli hands; international security guarantees; and recognition of Israel by the Arab world – or, at least, as much of it as would go along with such a deal.

And there lies the rub. For until the bitter, and sometimes bloody, struggle for power between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is resolved, no peace deal could stick. And Hamas is part of the Islamist Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis and the tool of the viscerally anti-Israel Iran. Obama's early overtures to Iran proved fruitless, and one main purpose of the nuclear summit, currently taking place in Washington, is to obtain international agreement for a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran. These, if obtained, would be backed by the new US nuclear strategy announced by President Obama last week – no first use of nuclear weapons except against "rogue states", of which Iran is one.

To resolve even the apparently unresolvable, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, has, it is reported, urged Obama to make an Anwar Sadat-style "journey for peace" by leading Arab and peace-process leaders in joint appearances at Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and the Palestinian legislature in Ramallah.

"Only a bold and dramatic gesture," he is reported to have said, "in a historically significant setting can generate the political and psychological momentum needed for a major breakthrough."

The approach that now seems to be in the making in Washington is entirely in line with President Obama's strategy for the Middle East outlined by George Mitchell: "a comprehensive peace." That's a prize – and a legacy – worth any president's time and attention, and certainly not to be shrugged at.

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