London, Asharq Al-Awsat- President Barack Obama wants US partners in the Middle East to take positive steps ‘to pave the way and create conditions’ for launching the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Informed US sources have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat.
The sources that spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity explained that “the Obama administration’s approach to peace does not set out from the premise of convening a peace conference and then waiting for the results of the negotiations; rather it wants to create the required conditions first for the success of the peace process, and this requires the states in the region to take certain steps.”
The sources added: “We want regional efforts to go hand in hand with US efforts in order to build trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The US does not want to move towards convening a peace conference on the Middle East before talking to its allies in the region about what each party can do to create a better atmosphere for the peace process.”
The sources explained that Washington will be an impartial and fair ‘intermediary’ for peace and will try to remove every doubt regarding its integrity in performing this role, as shown in the open and continuing pressure it put on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to stop the building of settlements in any shape or form.
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources have said that the 5-page document presented by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu-Mazin) to President Obama includes a plan to activate the Road Map and the Arab peace initiative, as well as mechanisms for watching settlement building and a time-scale for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian cities and visions for a two-state solution.
According to an official in the US Department of State, ‘the immediate object’ of the Obama administration is to start work with its partners in the region on paving the way for peace immediately and that its approach to peace will be firm.
The official explained,”We aim to change the suspicious atmosphere prevailing in the region and the lack of trust in the peace process. The US remains committed to working actively and firmly towards a durable peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It also remains committed to achieving peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the objective of Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace and security. President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have made it clear that these objectives are among their top priorities.”
The US official continued: “Our immediate object is to start working with our Israeli and Arab partners and our allies in the international community, to create the conditions for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and establish a viable independent Palestinian state.”
President Obama held a meeting at the White House with [Palestinian President] Mahmud Abbas, ten days after his meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu, who disagrees with Washington on the settlements and the Palestinian state.
President Obama made it clear that he will continue to put pressure on Netanyahu to impose a total freeze on the building of settlements in the West Bank, as well as his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But Obama spoke of an ‘internal Israeli movement’ to reduce the extent of his differences with Netanyahu, saying: “I believe we should not lose a moment in our efforts to solve the conflict, but I do not make decisions only on the basis of the talks that we had last week; Netanyahu surely has to sort these things out with his government and coalition.”
President Obama refused to commit himself to an ‘artificial time-scale’ for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this way, he was unlike his predecessor, President George Bush, who started his efforts for peaceful resolution of the conflict at the end of 2007 and made January 2009 as a deadline for achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Obama went on to say: “We shall see progress and we shall work seriously to make it happen. I am sure we can push this process forward; if the parties are prepared to honor their commitments. We cannot continue aimlessly; we should put the issue back on course.”
Obama stressed anew that Israel’s obligations according to the Road Map Agreement of 2003 include “the cessation of all settlement building and guarantees the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.” But on the other hand, he said that the Palestinians should do more to strengthen their security forces and reduce ‘incitement’ against Israel, which he said is widespread in mosques and schools.
In this respect, Obama pointed out the continuing contacts between [Palestinian President] Mahmud Abbas and US General Keith Dayton – the security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, who in the past few years has been living and working continually in Jerusalem and the West Bank and has personally supervised the establishment of three brigades for Palestinian Authority security forces.
General Dayton last Thursday talked for the first time in almost three and a half years to politicians and researchers, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is regarded as one of the pro-Jewish Lobby research centers. He said in his speech to the institute that “the building of well-trained Palestinian authority security forces is important for moving forward,” and that the number of brigades, the training of which he is supervising, will be increased to ten in the future, each consisting of 500 individuals. The mission of these forces, he said, is the “building of a Palestinian state.” But as many of the participants at the institute’s meeting do not necessarily support the idea of an ‘independent Palestinian state’, General Dayton added: “if you do not like the idea of a Palestinian state, you would not like this meeting.”
It should be noted that the US intelligence services and the Israeli internal security services – Shin Beth investigate the names of individuals who join the Palestinian security forces, in order to ensure that it is not ‘infiltrated’. General Dayton said that these forces are trained to confront Hamas and criminal organizations in the West Bank and that the cost of building these forces has reached $161 million.
Although, as Dayton has said, the mission of these forces is ‘the building of a Palestinian state,” the reality on the ground is not as simple, as Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who works presently at the American Enterprise Institute has said.
At the meeting, Wolfowitz asked General Dayton: “How many Palestinians regard the forces that you are training as agents? Dayton replied that Hamas and its sympathizers accuse these forces of being agents, but he stressed that these forces see their role as establishing an independent Palestinian state.
On his part, [Palestinian President] Mahmud Abbas, described his meeting with President Obama as being “serious and frank,” adding: “we agreed to always remain in touch.”
Replying to a question on how hopeful he was for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the PA President said: “We hope that these promises will materialize and there is no reason why they should not, unless Israel puts obstacles in the way.” Abbas announced that the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, will visit the region on the 7th June 2009.
The difference in the warmth of Obama’s reception of the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and that of last week’s reception of Binyamin Netanyahu was obvious. When Obama met Netanyahu last week they did not smile at the cameras and they did not shake hands at the end of their talks; which was an indication of the tense atmosphere between them.
In this respect, an American source told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The message was that Israel has to respond to the anxiety caused by the increase in the building of settlements and their expansion. The settlements are an obstacle to progressing forward. If the building of settlements stops now, the peace process can begin; but it cannot begin while the expansion of settlements continues.”
While the differences between Washington and Tel Aviv do exist in fact in relation to the settlements, it seems that Hilary Clinton’s statement after her meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu-al-Ghayt, earlier this week, in which she said that “no US flexibility in relation to the expansion of settlements, whether natural or not,” Netanyahu has reportedly angrily asked a close associate, “what the hell do they want of me?” He was protesting against what Israel sees has “become open and continuous pressure.”
The source, which is close to Netanyahu, said in leaks reported by the American website ‘Foreign Policy’: “it was understood that Netanyahu also felt uncomfortable during his meeting last week with US Congress leaders.” This was because the congressmen stressed to Netanyahu the need to stop the building and expanding of settlements and left him in no doubt that he would not find a dissenting voice in Congress on this point. That was also after the Obama administration had succeeded, through Vice President Joseph Biden, in convincing the US Congress that the issue of peace is a national security matter for the United States, not only a matter for Israeli national security.
However, the American source belittled the effect of differences between Washington and Tel Aviv, saying: “We want to prove to all the parties concerned that we are impartial. We have made certain demands of the Palestinians and our regional partners with a view to moving on with the peace process and the same thing should happen with Israel who should fulfill its obligations. In fact, in the last analysis, achieving peace with the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest.”
It does seem however, that Obama’s insistence on pressuring Israel in relation to the settlements has made the doubters of peace with the Palestinians reconsider their position. One of those is Aaron David Miller, who was a Middle East affairs consultant during seven US administrations. In statements he made to Asharq Al-Awsat on a previous occasion, he said that he could not foresee the peace process with the Palestinians moving forward in the near future and that the Obama administration would direct its attention to peace with Syria.
It seems that Miller is positively surprised by the way the Obama administration has been moving. He says: “What I have started to see is less interest by the Obama administration to move immediately towards establishing peace negotiations or agreement. This administration is more concerned inlaying down new rules and reorganizing the foundations of the negotiating process.”
Miller, who is presently working with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, says: “It may be that the Obama administration has concluded that they cannot achieve the two-state solution with the Netanyahu government and perhaps want another Israeli prime minister, and the best way to do this is to make Netanyahu appear incapable of managing Israel’s most important relations in the world, which is its relations with the United States.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post has quoted a Palestinian source as saying that the US administration will continue pressurizing Netanyahu if it appeared that he was not a peace partner, with a view to his replacement by another prime minister. The Palestinian source said that this might take two years of unsuccessful negotiation attempts.”