Getting to yes on Middle East peace talks. Then comes the hard part: negotiations

Getting to yes on Middle East peace talks. Then comes the hard part: negotiations

With the expectation that the Obama administration plans to try to announce its Middle East peace-plan parameters and a rough calendar for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks next month, U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell is due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in London, the State Department said Monday.

"What George Mitchell is trying to do is lay the foundation that will lead to the resumption of meaningful negotiations," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at a Monday press conference. "There have been some reports that we’re close to a breakthrough," he said. "But any reports that we’ve come to an agreement, or that we expect one on Wednesday necessarily, I would have to call premature."

"We’re getting closer to laying this foundation where everybody’s comfortable to coming and sitting down and talking," Kelly added.

"Mitchell is going to tell Netanyahu that ‘we can do this simultaneously,’" predicted Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert and former consultant to the National Intelligence Council who followed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Washington last week closely.

According to Cohen, Mitchell expects Netanyahu to agree to some sort of settlement freeze that would be accompanied by a near-simultaneous Palestinian declaration that they would join peace talks with Israel before all settlements are actually ended; as well as signals from some Gulf and Arab states that they are willing to take intermediate steps toward normalization with Israel. Initially, that could mean the mutual opening of interests sections or liaison offices between Israel and several North African and Gulf states, Cohen said.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for six secretaries of state, said Sunday that the Obama administration is planning to produce, "in late September or October," either a conference or an announcement of a plan for a peace process — Madrid Plus, as he called it — involving at least three components:

  1. A relaunch of Israel-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as a track for resuming formal multilateral relations between Israel and other Arab states
  2. An agreement with the Netanyahu government on a settlement freeze that goes further than any other Israeli government has ever gone, and one that would "grandfather in a large number of discreet units and quiet understandings on Jerusalem"
  3. The resumption by Arab states — with or without the Saudis, but including the Bahrainis, other Gulf states, Tunisians, and Moroccans — of liaison offices or interest sections with Israel.

"And they are going to wrap the whole thing in an event — a conference or an announcement," Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said.

It’s not clear if or where such an international conference or talks launch would take place. Western diplomats have told The Cable that both Russia and France are keen to host such a conference.

Some officials and Middle East hands have suggested that an announcement of the administration’s plan for how to proceed in the Middle East could come around the time of the U.N. General Assembly opening session in New York later next month, along with several Middle East and Iran related announcements.

Miller is effusive about the scope and significance of the prospective settlement freeze agreement the Obama and Netanyahu governments may be poised to strike, which he described as unprecedented.

(Netanyahu’s proposed formula to Mitchell on settlements is that Israel won’t build new Jewish settlements, won’t expropriate land, and won’t expand existing settlements, but will continue with existing projects already underway, the Israeli prime minister told a small gathering in London Monday. Jerusalem is not a settlement, he further said.)

But Miller remains pessimistic about the outcome of prospective negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Can they reach a conflict-ending agreement right now? That’s a bridge too far," Miller said, citing the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on the issues of borders, Jerusalem, security, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral homes in Israel. He also said negotiations will be hampered by the lack of a really representative Palestinian government.

"That is the point," agreed Cohen, the director of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development and author of a new book, Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East. The United States is "acting as if there is a strong state" among the Arab states, he said. "But there is no leader who can make a decision who can carry the day. [Similarly], there is no strong leader in Palestine who can make a decision."

"Essentially there is an impasse that can only be broken if the U.S. proceeds to publish a ‘peace plan’ or coerce the two sides into some dialogue," a former senior Israeli official told The Cable. "So now the U.S. has to craft a policy that is comprehensive in scope (i.e., incorporates the Arab League Plan and the Syrian track) but one that is balanced between Israel and the Palestinians. The big carrot [on the Obama side]: ‘Let’s deal together with Iran.’ The big stick: ‘If you’re not on board, we’re out to lunch for 1-2 years. Otherwise, [there are] more pressing things to do.’"

Cohen recommends that Obama step up his efforts to engage the publics of Israel, and the broader American Jewish community, as he has done with the Muslim world.

Sources have said the Obama administration has considered suggestions that the president for instance give an interview to an Israeli journalist, but has thus far decided against it, for reasons that are not clear. Obama has given four interviews to various Arab media outlets, Middle East hands estimated, including his first interview upon taking office with Hisham Melham of satellite channel Al Arabiya.

Cohen says his suggestion for a strategic communications outreach to wider publics goes far beyond a single interview. "I don’t think an interview is the way for Obama to deal with the Israelis," said Cohen, who was among those who consulted the White House on Obama’s June Cairo speech to the Muslim world. "Obama should speak publicly — and he is a great speaker — to the Jews of the world the way he did to the Muslims of the world," he said. Perhaps a speech around the time of Jewish New Year holidays September 18 — a couple days before the UN General Assembly session is scheduled to open.