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Obama advisors all over the map on Israel

Obama advisors all over the map on Israel


Although the public fireworks between top U.S. and Israeli officials may have died down in recent days, a fully fledged debate has erupted inside the Obama administration over how to best bring Middle East peace talks to fruition, let alone a successful conclusion.

Some reports have suggested there are two camps within Obamaland — one favoring an incremental approach focused on persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations, and a second group pushing the president to lay his own "American plan" on the table.

But one U.S. official close to the issue told The Cable there’s a more diverse spectrum of opinion inside the administration, with different officials exhibiting a range of views on what the tactics and tone of the U.S. approach should be going forward. There is no prospect of an Obama peace plan surfacing anytime soon, however.

"That’s obviously an option we have. At some point we may exercise it," the administration official told The Cable. "There’s been no decision to do it and there’s no plan to do it."

National Security Advisor Jim Jones is the one most clearly advocating for a more definite American plan for how to proceed. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and New York Times reporter Helene Cooper both described Jones as the prime mover behind a recent White House meeting in which a group of former national security advisors urged Obama to consider proposing his own peace initiative.

But Jones denied Friday that Obama has decided to take their advice.

"These are ongoing discussions, and I think that while we’ve not taken any decision to jumpstart any dramatic shift in our strategy, I think we should say, to make clear, that we don’t intend to surprise anybody at any time," Jones told reporters.

"Some people suggested an American plan; other people had problems with it. Obama didn’t weigh in one way or the other," the official said.

Meanwhile, Special Envoy George Mitchell, who has been shepherding the negotiations over the proximity talks that are meant to lead to direct talks, isn’t necessarily opposed to a U.S. plan, but believes even talking about it now is premature.

Mitchell is for "getting to the negotiations, somehow" and is not in favor of releasing U.S. ideas "at this time," the official explained. That’s different than being for "incrementalism," which in and of itself is a misleading term, in this insider’s view.

"By definition all processes are incremental until they’re not," the official said. Mitchell’s other concern is that announcing a plan could be disastrous because the outlines of such a deal would certainly contain items that would upset each side.

"There are issues that are nonstarters on both sides, so what happens when both side reject it?," the official wondered.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agrees with Mitchell that it’s not yet time for an American plan. But she is also saying inside the discussions that both sides need a lot of pushing to do things they don’t want to do.

That’s somewhat different than Vice President Joseph Biden, who leans more toward thinking about how to solve the logjam between the U.S. and Israel first, and then figuring out how to solve the overall issue after that. He is not thought to be in favor of announcing an American plan in the near term.

Add to that line of thinking the National Security Council’s Dennis Ross, who due to his experience and inclination is also said to be more focused on solving the dispute over Israel’s settlements. Yes, Ross argues for going a little easier on the Israelis than the other members of the team, the official said, but recent attacks on his loyalty to America from unnamed sources were way overblown.

Valerie Jarrett is another team member to watch. Two officials confirmed she is in almost all the meetings, although one official cautioned that doesn’t mean she has a foreign-policymaking decision role, per se.

"Certainly how we handle Israel has implications for the public, nongovernmental organizations, and Congress, so understanding how the public and the interest groups will react is important and you have to loop her in," the official said.

To the extent that Jones and Jarrett seem to have increasing clout with Obama, that worries outsiders who fear they are pushing him toward a tougher stance vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who abruptly cancelled his plans to come to Washington next week for the nuclear summit.

And amid reports that Obama personally directed the harsh response to Netanyahu following the settlements dispute last month and the dressing down Netanyahu received at the Oval Office, Israel supporters worry that he is determined to make Netanyahu come to him.

That still hasn’t happened, as the White House waits for Netanyahu’s response to the list of ideas Obama gave him to prove Israel’s commitment to the process.

"We are still in consultations," the official could only say.

(Correction: Netanyahu’s title corrected to "prime minister.")