A day after U.S. special envoy George Mitchell left Israel with no deal on a resumption of peace talks in the region, the White House announced Saturday that President Barack Obama will meet Tuesday in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That meeting will be immediately preceded by separate meetings between Obama and each leader, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
The announcement changed the Mideast headline from “stalemate” to “breakthrough” as the Obama administration enters a week in which foreign policy takes center stage, with the president appearing at both the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and the G20 economic meetings in Pittsburgh.
But all parties say it's unlikely the Tuesday meeting will be accompanied by a long-sought announcement on the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That requires still more negotiations.
It's a meeting that seems to have come about in large part because of pressure on all sides to talk, as well as concerns about who would get blamed if they didn't — Netanyahu for resisting U.S. demands to halt settlement activity, Abbas for refusing to come if settlement activity hadn't ceased, Arab governments for stalling on good will gestures to Israel until it achieved peace with the Palestinians, or Obama for pushing preconditions for talks that he couldn't get the parties to agree to.
"It seems like a good move for all three parties to hold this meeting, although I doubt they'll be a lot of substance in the trilateral meeting," says the American Task Force for Palestine's Hussein Ibish.
Each leader had an interest in the meeting, Ibish said, “no matter what the atmospherics were until now.”
"Obviously, if there had been no meeting after Obama had called for it, the president would've been embarrassed. Indeed, his more extreme critics probably would have used it to say that his entire initiative had ground to a halt already. This was very much to be avoided from his point of view."
Abbas and Netanyahu had their own reasons for wanting the meeting to proceed.
"The Palestinians simply cannot afford to do anything other than support Obama, especially since he is carrying the settlement freeze issue forward as far as it can go with the Israelis through Mitchell.
"As for Netanyahu, obviously the meeting is useful to him as well. This way, he gets further dialogue and acknowledgment, from both the Americans and the Palestinians, without having given up anything publicly on the settlement freeze yet. This is particularly useful to him if he is building up credits with the Israeli right in preparation for an accommodation on settlements with Obama."
For their part, the American negotiators have kept their cards close to their chest. The White House and State Department have held back from describing the substantive disagreements that still have yet to be bridged.
“In the end, it’s going to be up to … both sides to take the kind of steps that they’ve already committed to,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Saturday. “And of course, for the Israelis, that means committing to an end to settlement activity; and on the Palestinian side, it means they have to take certain steps to raise the level of trust and their ability to maintain security in the Palestinian territories. “
Israeli officials indicated that Netanyahu was prepared to attend the three-way meeting with Obama and Abbas – his first apparent meeting with the Palestinian, one official said – but were still somewhat skeptical of the whole thing and are resisting announcing the resumption of peace talks at the meeting. Netanyahu “is not necessarily unhappy but we would prefer to get this behind us and focus on the real thing- Iran,” one Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
Particularly sensitive to the perception that it’s been Netanyahu’s resistance to Washington’s request for a settlement freeze that is hobbling the peace talks relaunch, the Israeli government has gone into overdrive in recent days, sending armies of foreign ministry aides to Washington and beyond to emphasize other factors.
Among those they publicly cite: Abbas’ insistence on a total settlement freeze before resuming peace talks, versus Netanyahu’s willingness to go into negotiations “without preconditions.” They also say the U.S. never gave enough credit to Netanyahu for his June Bar Ilan University speech in which he for the first time endorsed two states, albeit a demilitarized Palestinian state.
They say Jerusalem has yet to see a final list of intermediate steps towards normalization from that Mitchell has been negotiating with Arab states. They also describe a still high element of uncertainty about how the Americans want the negotiations to proceed – whether, for instance, negotiations would begin on borders, or on more intermediate steps. Netanyahu also insists Jerusalem not be part of any settlement freeze, although it’s not clear the American diplomats have accepted that position.
Privately, Netanyahu’s allies have also blamed the Obama administration for insisting on a settlement freeze as a key component needed to relaunch peace talks, thereby giving Abbas an excuse to refuse to show up with something short of that.
Even some of the most ardent supporters of Obama’s commitment to Middle East peace have been critical of the way the Mitchell negotiations have gotten stuck for months on the issue of a settlement freeze.
“The major problem wasn't the man, but the mission,” said veteran U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. Mitchell’s Mideast peace mission was “made more complex by Obama's unrealistic call for a comprehensive settlements freeze, including natural growth,” Miller said.
“But the major culprit,” Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, continued, “is the reality which few want to face up to: that a conflict-ending solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just isn't possible with this Israeli government and this Palestinian humpty-dumpty.”
That is not, however, a reality that the Obama administration seems the least bit prepared to concede.
Asked about the Middle East peace issue at the Brookings Institution Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she knew a thing or two about how hard Middle East peace-making is and the disappointments and setbacks along the path.
“This President started on the very first day with a commitment to pursue a comprehensive peace agreement premised on the two-state solution,” Clinton said. “And I can guarantee you that President Obama and I are very patient and very determined. And we know that this is not an easy road for anyone to travel. I have personal experience about how difficult this road is.
Clinton then recalled the high and low points of here husband’s attempt for a Mideast break through when he was president. “I well remember that brilliant sunny afternoon on the South Lawn of the White House when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands,” she said. “And I well remember the disappointment at Camp David despite enormous efforts to try to finally forge that peace agreement when it was not successful.”
“However, I believe that the commitment evidenced by my husband and the commitment evidenced by President Obama to be in this from the very beginning, never to be deterred, … is the best way for America to demonstrate our absolute belief that this issue is at the core of so many other challenges we face,” Clinton continued. “And we are going to do all we can to persuade, cajole, encourage the parties themselves to make that agreement.”