Q+A: U.S. Mideast peace push: back to the future?

By Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – Is it back to the future for Mideast peace negotiations?

U.S. President Barack Obama’s personal push to launch direct peace talks this week between Israel and the Palestinians carries a strong sense of deja vu: his predecessor George W. Bush did much the same in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2007, only to see early hopes collapse in acrimony.

The goal for Thursday’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the same as for the last round of U.S.-brokered talks in Annapolis — a deal to establish a democratic Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.

But while the process appears familiar, several key factors are new, starting with Obama himself. Political analysts will be watching closely to see whether these changes will be enough to avoid a rerun of earlier U.S. peacemaking failures.

WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR THE UNITED STATES?

The biggest difference is Obama, who early in his presidency identified Middle East peace as a key foreign policy priority.

While Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton also made bids to get the Israelis and Palestinians together, both occurred toward the end of their second terms, when they faced little risk of a domestic political backlash.

Obama, on the other hand, risks a lot by taking the issue on ahead of U.S. congressional elections in November and his own prospective campaign for re-election in 2012 against an energized Republican opposition with strong pro-Israel ties.

“It is dangerous for Obama to be seen as putting pressure on Israel, so they will be careful,” said Michelle Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Definitely I think the Republicans will be trying to play that argument over the next couple of years.”

Obama plans to meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas at the White House on Wednesday, and diplomatic analysts expect him to keep the pressure on both to remain at the table in hopes of finding a victory that has eluded so many previous U.S. leaders.

WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR THE PALESTINIANS?

Abbas represented the Palestinians at the 2007 Annapolis conference and is a familiar face at peace negotiations. But he arrives in Washington politically weaker than ever, which could complicate the dynamic.

With his Palestinian Authority (PA) strapped for cash and his Fatah party struggling for influence against Hamas, the Islamist group which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, Abbas is in a tough spot that may preclude any quick concessions to Israel, particularly on the issue of Jewish settlements on occupied territory in the West Bank.

“Abbas is far less likely to think creatively or boldly, and at the beginning he is going to be very cautious,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel who now teaches at Princeton University.

But with the West Bank now logging growth at around 8 percent a year and the PA taking on more of the attributes of a real state, Abbas may sense it is time to make a deal, especially if big funders like the United States and key Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan say it needs to happen.

“The United States and the Quartet (of Mideast peacemakers) have a role in this, and the role they play with aid and support is critical,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS).

“This is not just a game with two players.”

WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR ISRAEL?

In Annapolis, Israel was represented by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a centrist who in subsequent negotiations with Abbas thrashed out possible deals on several sticking points.

But Abbas quit the talks in 2008 after Olmert launched an offensive on Hamas-run Gaza, and Olmert himself was subsequently forced from office over corruption allegations.

Netanyahu comes to the talks with a tough guy image as the head of a right-wing coalition that has backed Israel’s right to expand Jewish settlements on West Bank land it occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.

But the settlement issue has proven precarious for Netanyahu, who saw relations with the United States dip sharply this year amid disagreement over future settlement plans.

A fence-mending Netanyahu visit with Obama was postponed after Israeli commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid ship in May, killing nine pro-Palestinian activists, spurring a worldwide outcry and new strains in Israel’s ties to its neighbors.

The trip was rescheduled for July, but it appears clear Israel’s chief diplomatic and financial ally is willing to exert more pressure on the Israeli government under Obama than it was under Bush.

WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED?

Diplomatic analysts say the framework hammered out in the Annapolis process — including options for land swaps, international oversight of flashpoint holy sites in Jerusalem and NATO guarantees of border security for Israel — could conceivably still work.

Some also point to lower levels of violence, slowed settlement activity and growing acceptance of the two-state model as potential reasons for optimism.

But the hard realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, driven by decades of mistrust, remain and it is unclear whether Obama’s external pressure will be enough to overcome the political obstacles facing both Netanyahu and Abbas.

Netanyahu has to contend with pro-settler parties that could bring down his government, forcing him to turn to the center or the left, while Palestinians are divided between Abbas’ Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“People keep wanting to talk about the diplomacy but the real issue here is the underlying politics,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the CSIS think tank in Washington.

“The barrier is not ‘can diplomats conceivably find a solution,’ because diplomats can conceivably find a solution. The barrier is that you don’t have the politics to allow the diplomats to make an agreement.”

(Editing by Patricia Wilson and Eric Beech)

Q+A: U.S. Mideast peace push: back to the future?