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Dropping Goal of Direct Talks, U.S. Will Now Test Both Sides on Core Issues

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised that he will “surprise the critics and the skeptics” with his willingness to demonstrate flexibility and to compromise in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Now, with Washington adopting a new approach toward Middle East peacemaking, Netanyahu’s willingness is about to be put to the test.

The Obama administration has decided to require both Israelis and Palestinians to dive into the core issues of the conflict: borders, settlements, refugees and the future of Jerusalem and to assert their views and red lines on each of them.

Talking: U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell (left) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on December 13 as part of his renewed mission of shuttle diplomacy. Image by Getty Images

The American plan — born out of frustration from lack of progress in talks with Israelis over extending the settlement freeze and with Palestinians over resuming direct negotiations — could present a double challenge to Netanyahu. On the international front, the Israeli leader will have to prove that the Obama administration was right in crediting him with being committed to the peace process, and on the domestic front he could face a need to rebuild his coalition to make it more accommodating for future compromises.

The new American approach skips over the issues of freezing settlement activity and of getting Israelis and Palestinians back into direct negotiations.

“It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her December 10 speech at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington. “I regret that we have not gotten farther faster in our recent efforts.”

From now, the United States, according to Clinton, will try to look beyond the technicalities of getting into the process, and will take on the final-status issues with each side. “We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers,” Clinton said, adding that when necessary, America will offer bridging proposals.

“I think we are moving from negotiation about settlement activity to consultations with each side as to what their minimum requirements are on each of the core issues,” said Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a former American ambassador to Israel. Indyk added that in his view, this process would be more productive than the previous approach taken by the administration.

Clinton, in presenting her new approach, stopped short of suggesting the United States would present its own peace plan for the region. According to experts, such a plan could be an ambitious undertaking given the significant differences between the opening positions of Israelis and Palestinians.

Even agreeing to take both sides to task on the core issues and to offer the occasional bridging proposal could be risky for an administration that is short on achievements in the Middle East.

“This is quite an ambitious goal,” said Robert Danin, a former American diplomat who is now a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. However, Danin said, the administration is demonstrating that it does not believe the mission of reaching an agreement is impossible. “Obviously the United States is not deterred by the position that it has heard so far,” Danin said. “It believes there is a deal to be had and is going to have to pursue this with renewed vigor.”

Such vigor would require not only determination on the part of the administration, but also the backing of Congress, which in the past has shown it does not welcome American pressure on Israel.

“As long as we think it is going in the right direction, we’ll be supportive,” said Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat and the outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Berman said he believes that even after Republicans take over the House majority, the administration will still have enough leeway to promote Middle East peace. “There’ll be debates and discussions, but in the end, on this kind of an issue, the administration leads,” he told the Forward.

According to American and Israeli officials involved in the discussions, the upcoming weeks will be dedicated to formulating the mechanism for discussing the core issues. George Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy to the region, conducted a first round of talks on December 13 and 14, which, according to Israeli officials, could be followed by another round of talks held by Dennis Ross, a special assistant to the president who is focused on the Middle East. It is well known in Washington that Ross and Mitchell have been engaged in turf wars over leading the administration’s Middle East policy. Some commentators have suggested that Ross’s views are more favorable to Netanyahu’s government.

But it is Netanyahu who is now on the hot seat. Despite the administration’s efforts to make clear that responsibility lies with both sides, Middle East experts listening to Clinton’s speech at the Saban Forum noted that she had repeatedly praised Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, while not saying a single good word about Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is now expected to prove his credibility to an administration that had started off with a negative view of him. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who reportedly convinced the Obama administration that Netanyahu is prepared for historic compromises, said that he stands behind his words. “I never promise something that I do not know for sure. I told foreign leaders that this government is committed to peace, and I still think it has the responsibility, the duty and the ability to take tough decisions,” Barak told the Forward on December 14, as he concluded his American visit.

“We are not doing the Americans a favor by moving forward in the peace process,” Barak said. “If we don’t do so, the alternatives will be much worse, like the situation that was in Belfast, or in the Balkans, or even total chaos, not to mention the threat of delegitimization, which is just as big a problem as Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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