Much on the Line as Sides Feel Out Mideast Peace Process


Hillary Rodham Clinton's rescue mission over the weekend to breathe life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process was either a failure or a success, depending on who's telling the story.

The secretary of state made a quick stop in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to press Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand for a total settlement construction freeze and return to the peace table with Israel. He refused.

She then flew to Jerusalem, where she praised Benjamin Netanyahu's "unprecedented" restraint in agreeing to a partial moratorium — but no freeze — on settlement-building.

Though the Israeli prime minister had just told Clinton that he was "eager to advance" the peace process, he had reason to be pleased. The Obama administration had backed off — far off — its original demand for a freeze, even in eastern Jerusalem, and the Palestinians were being blamed for blocking the relaunching of the peace process.

The other peace process is more important to Netanyahu: repairing frayed relations between himself and the Obama administration without risking his right-wing coalition. Both sides have been working very hard at it — as Clinton's effusive if undeserved praise demonstrated — and it has paid off.

The prime minister's top priority is not the Palestinians, but the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions, and that will top his agenda when he meets President Barack Obama next week at the White House.

Obama has made relaunching Mideast peace talks a major administration goal, and it will take more than Abbas' latest demands to make him walk away from it. Netanyahu will tell the president that he is a willing partner for the Palestinians, but most of all, he wants to convince Obama to intensify pressure on Iran.

Similarly, Obama wants to make sure that Israel doesn't feel that no one is taking the Iranian threat seriously so it will have to act unilaterally.

Netanyahu never had much enthusiasm for the Palestinian negotiations because key coalition partners would not support the kind of concessions essential to reaching an agreement on final-status issues. But so far, he hasn't had to confront that because the Palestinians are deeply and bitterly divided over who should rule Palestine, and whether or not their goal is peace or the elimination of Israel.

Abbas' inflexibility on settlements may have less to do with Israel than with internal Palestinian politics. Facing elections next year, he feels that he cannot afford to look weak on such a highly charged issue. After Obama called for a settlement freeze, Abbas climbed out on the same limb and made it a condition for returning to the peace talks. When Obama climbed back, Abbas was unwilling — or unable — to follow, lest his opponents accuse him of going soft on settlements.

The peace process is in deep trouble not just because neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are ready, but also because the administration launched it the day after taking office without being fully prepared with staffing, policy, and support at home and in the region.

And it is paying the price.

With prospects for real progress fading, the Obama administration may be looking for a face-saving way to rescue its peace initiative: indirect talks, probably through U.S. special envoy George Mitchell or some other intermediary. That may not appeal to Netanyahu, who has rejected a similar arrangement with the Syrians, insisting on face-to-face talks.

Clinton took her rescue mission to Morocco to drum up support for the peace process among Arab foreign ministers meeting in Marrakesh. But they only focused on demands for what America should make Israel do.

Abbas can't afford to refuse to talk indefinitely, or to keep raising new demands or even walk away; he has to go to voters next year and be able to show that his path — negotiations — produces more benefits for Palestinians than Hamas' violence. He also can't afford to lose U.S. and world aid that keeps his government afloat.

At the J Street lobby's conference last week, Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, said that if the president could solve only one international problem, that should be Israeli-Palestinian peace — what he called the "epicenter" of U.S. foreign policy.

The president made it a top priority the day after he took office, and much of his stature is at stake in his commitment to relaunching the peace process. He won't want to go to Oslo on Dec. 10 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize with nothing to show but failure on what was to be a defining issue for his administration.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a nationally syndicated columnist, former AIPAC legislative director and Washington consultant.


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