WASHINGTON (AFP) – Washington’s foreign policy echo chamber is reverberating with speculation that President Barack Obama could try to blow open the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians with his own peace plan.
Debate is centering on whether apparently carefully placed leaks on this theme in The Washington Post and The New York Times this month augur a new approach, are meant to pressure Israel, or are just a sign of US impatience.
What is clear however, is that prospects for any fresh US strategy are darkened by hostility between the two sides, a public American spat with the Israeli government and splits in Palestinian politics.
Obama is showing symptoms familiar to US presidents with long-term exposure to the Middle East — frustration, irritation and a resigned resolve to press on after more setbacks than peacemaking progress in his first year in office.
“The truth is, in some of these conflicts, the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of the old patterns of antagonism,” Obama said last week.
“Sometimes, we’ll take one step forward and two steps back and there will be frustrations. It’s not going to run on the typical cable news 24/7 cycle.”
Though no one believes a US plan could “impose” a solution, some observers wonder whether an effort to focus the parties on “big issues” could defuse current rows over interim but emotive issues, like Israeli settlements.
A new, ambitious US plan requiring direct talks between the parties seems attractive, because the administration’s efforts so far have become bogged down in rows over peripheral issues to an ultimate peace settlement.
The president has waged a public spat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements, been hampered by Palestinian political divides and failed to persuade Arab states to offer Israel incentives.
The logic behind a US plan holds that if the future status of Jerusalem — claimed partly or entirely by both sides as a future capital — can be solved, irritants like settlement building in the city would no longer occur.
The administration says it has made no decisions on where to go next, but pledges not to surprise the main players.
An Obama plan would likely be modeled on the vision laid down by ex-president Bill Clinton before he left office in 2001.
The “Clinton parameters” stipulate Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and most of the West Bank, a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, an undivided Jerusalem and security guarantees for both sides.
But unveiling a new US plan would also be an ultra high risk move, given current discord.
“I am not sure that now is the right moment for the president to do that, since when you put something out there, you are stuck with it,” said Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cook suggested that a renewed effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to take part in “proximity talks” might be more of a low-risk option, and could provide cover for more significant covert contacts between the parties.
The idea of an Obama plan is a gamble, because if both sides reject it, or more likely contribute to its demise through delay, bickering and mistrust, the president will have wasted his best diplomatic shot.
The high-stakes intervention of an American president may also be more effective later on, when the prestige of the White House is needed to close a deal.
Grand plans for Middle East peace also have a habit of coming unraveled, as did the unsuccessful “road-map” sponsored by the Middle East diplomatic quartet.
Still, there are those who believe a new US plan does have a chance to work — if it is properly rolled out and supported.
“It is something that has to be really well prepared. You have to have gamed out phases two, three and four if you are doing something like that,” said Daniel Levy, a former senior Israeli policy advisor, now with the New America Foundation.
One unanswered question is whether at this time, the right-wing Israeli government and the Palestinians, split between Hamas and Fatah, share the same desire to end the conflict as the US president.
Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and talismanic General David Petraeus have tried to build urgency by arguing that with tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East, the conflict has become a threat to US security.
Such comments, while sending a signal of US resolve to the parties, also serve a domestic political purpose, as Obama faces a tide of criticism for his policy towards Israel from US lawmakers and the Israeli lobby.