Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- Many questions are being asked whether it is possible to resume peace negotiations in the Middle East that can achieve real and concrete results after the peace process has been faltering over the past few months. A total of 10 months have passed since US President Barack Obama announced his determination to bring peace to the Middle East on his first day in the White House. However, there have been no indications that such a peace would be reached. On the contrary, the issue became more complicated in view of the provocative Jewish actions in Jerusalem and the announcement by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas of his intention not to run again for the PA Presidency.
Despite the feelings of disappointment among peace advocates, the US Administration continues to assert that the chances for reaching an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis continue to exist. The efforts to bring peace are being led by George Mitchell, the special US envoy for peace in the Middle East. Mitchell has been exercising media silence while holding weekly meetings as part of the efforts to find a common ground between the two sides. A US Administration official says: “We are still committed to peace in the Middle East. Senator Mitchell’s efforts continue to focus on reaching suitable conditions for the talks.” The official, who asked Asharq Al-Awsat not to reveal his name, adds: “The current situation has existed for decades; no one expects results overnight. Like any other party, we continue to hope for reaching peace but we do not wish to be overcome by impatience. We do not want to push for talks before the sides are ready.” US official sources affirm that the US Administration will not go back on its policy that rejects “negotiations for the sake of negotiations.” This means that Washington is prepared to wait at present and not rush toward direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis so that the efforts do not fail. But the general feeling in the US capital is that the efforts so far have not resulted in any progress forward. Under Secretary of State William Burns expressed this feeling in an address to the Middle East Institute last week: “I had hoped to stand before you and say that tangible progress has been made toward our goals, but I cannot.” Another US official, who also asked to remain anonymous, says: “The focus is still on launching direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but it is not clear at what level,” adding: “The Obama administration has pledged to work for a peace agreement and it continues to reject negotiations for the sake of negotiations.”
There are three possible scenarios in Washington. The first scenario is continuing the current efforts to build trust between the two sides; the second scenario is thinking of the Syrian-Israeli track; and the third scenario, which is the least probable at this stage, is for Obama to proclaim a US plan to impose direct negotiations between the two sides. Aaron Miller, a former Department of State official and expert in Middle East affairs, says: “Under the present conditions — developments in Afghanistan and the economy — the peace process is no longer a priority for the administration and it is not clear what the next strategy will be.” He adds that the third possible scenario — a possible declaration by Obama of a peace plan and bringing the leaders in the region together to reach an agreement that resolves the conflict finally –“is almost zero.” At present, Washington is adopting the first scenario. Mitchell has been talking with Israeli and Palestinian officials for weeks on the pending issues while also discussing a possible meeting between Palestinians and Israelis but on a technical level rather than a high political level. While the US Administration is asking for a “climate amenable to peace,” the climate has actually become tenser as the gap between the Palestinians and Israelis has widened, especially regarding Israel’s continued settlement construction activities. Although “a positive climate” does not exist, US officials continue to believe that it is possible to create groundwork for the two sides to meet and build trust.
This brings us to the plan of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that focuses on building the institutions of the PA in preparation for the establishment of the future Palestinian state. US officials are exerting efforts to push Israel to support this process, especially to make freedom of movement easier. But Palestinian Ambassador in Washington Ma’in Urayqat stressed that “small steps will not lead to relaxation. This is an attempt to avoid dealing with the principal pending issues. The peace efforts should be founded on the bases of the international points of reference. Dr Salam Fayyad’s proposals are not an alternative to the required political solution.” At present, the US Administration is committed to the Palestinian-Israeli track despite the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referred in Washington to a likely push of the Syrian track as a way to lift the pressure on his government to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Another US official said: “Regarding Syria and Israel, the United States supports a peace agreement between these two sides. However, it is unlikely that we would return to the Syrian track when the Palestinian track is faltering, as is often the case.” Palestinian expert Hussein Ibish, from The American Task Force on Palestine, says: “Everyone in Washington is confused about the next concrete steps to take. The Americans have given up on the idea of a US peace plan while the current consultations with Mitchell seem weak. At present, however, it seems that seeking to draw up plans to build the institutions of the future Palestinian state is the best track until a relaxation takes place.”
US sources familiar with the nature of US-Israeli relations point to the diminishment of the level of these relations and the big difference in the relations that existed under the administration of former US President George W. Bush. This makes it hard to put pressure on Israel regarding the improvement of living conditions in the West Bank. The way Obama met with Netanyahu in Washington last week without media photographers is a sign of the tense relations and indicates Obama’s efforts to distance Washington from Israel’s policies. Moreover, Obama’s cancellation of his first address to the influential Jewish community in the United States at the conference of Jewish Federations has raised the acuteness of Israel’s criticism of Obama although the White House asserted that the reason for the cancellation was Obama’s wish to attend the funeral of the victims of the attack in Fort Hood military base. Miller pointed out: “One should review the ability of the United States at present to influence the situation there. This is especially true since the situation is close to a storm because the leaders seem to be the prisoners of the public opinion of their peoples instead of being the masters of the political decisions.” This was a reference to Netanyahu and his weak political coalition and the domestic situation of Abu-Mazin [Mahmud Abbas]. Miller adds: “No superpower wants to find itself in such a situation where its efforts to obtain concessions are faltering despite its determination and the many statements it makes.”