The last thing Binyamin Netanyahu wants from Barack Obama is what Mahmoud Abbas and his Arab brethren are praying for - a comprehensive American Middle East peace plan. Rumors abound that one is in the works, but they appear based more on fear and hope than on any hard evidence. So far the administration can't even get the two sides to agree on the first step back to the negotiating table - a settlement freeze in exchange for reciprocal gestures by the Arabs. The Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis have publicly rejected the incremental approach, but Obama's special envoy George Mitchell is still hoping to produce some kind of package which will give the parties the cover they need to return to negotiations. The president may give some clues about his plans when Egypt's Hosni Mubarak comes to Washington next week, but details are still a few weeks away, according to a State Department spokesman. THE ADMINISTRATION is said to be divided on its approach to peacemaking, no doubt because so many cooks are stirring the pot. In addition to Mitchell, who nominally works for the State Department, and his boss, Secretary Hillary Clinton, there are Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro at the National Security Council and their boss, Gen. Jim Jones, plus top White House aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod and assorted other advisers plus Vice President Joe Biden, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The first Mideast peace conference may have to be a White House staff meeting. There is much talk but no hard evidence that the Obama administration is drafting a major peace plan along the lines of those produced by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. All, of course, failed. Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week predicted Washington would offer its own peace proposal "in the coming weeks," and that "Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan." Obama is more likely to opt for a PR campaign featuring him and top aides in interviews with Israeli and Arab media - plus a presidential visit - to define the administration's vision of peace and how to achieve it. That is likely to be followed by an all-parties conference if there's a solution to the settlements imbroglio. The last American president to offer a comprehensive peace proposal was Ronald Reagan 27 years ago, and it was doomed by "flawed tactics and timing," according to Sam Lewis, the American ambassador who presented the plan to prime minister Menachem Begin. Whether the US offers a conflict-ending peace plan or a series of bridging proposals, both Obama and Netanyahu can learn from Reagan's mistakes. Netanyahu was personally involved as the deputy chief of mission at the Washington embassy at the time, and more than most, he should know that how the two sides respond initially will be critical. Reagan had cleared his peace plan in advance with the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians, but not Israel, which had no opportunity for any input. That "stunned" and infuriated Begin, "hardened the Israeli reaction and converted a probable failure into a certain one," Lewis wrote later. Netanyahu was in charge at the embassy because ambassador Moshe Arens was back in Jerusalem on August 31, 1982, when Lewis briefed Begin the day before Reagan was to unveil his plan. Netanyahu's advice to Begin, according to a source in close contact with the future prime minister at the time, was to keep calm despite his feelings of betrayal, and say there are positives and negatives in the plan and the two leaders needed to sit together and discuss it. Meanwhile, he suggested saying Reagan had put the proverbial ball in the Arabs' court and Israel was awaiting their response. Netanyahu, like some others around Begin as well as leading pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, was confident that the Arabs would eventually reject any proposal for a conflict-ending peace, so Israel should mute its response and let the Arabs play the role of spoiler. But Begin was too deeply offended by Reagan's snub and wanted to make sure his rejection came through loud and clear. One of the Likud's young princes later told me he advised Begin, "If you have to say no, coat it with as much sugar as possible." Begin rejected that advice as well. He wanted no misunderstandings. Begin called it "the saddest day of my life" as prime minister and Reagan's treatment of Israel - particularly his letting the "anti-Israel, Islamic fanatics" of Saudi Arabia "determin(e) our future" while concealing the plan from Israel - was "entirely unacceptable." The Reagan plan, he said, "would endanger our very existence." Netanyahu's advice to Begin was sound and prophetic. Begin, with his hasty, angry rejection, wound up taking most of the blame for the failure of the plan. The larger portion of responsibility belonged to Reagan for his mishandling of the proposal, which included clearing it with the Arabs while keeping Israel out of the loop and attempting to pressure Israel by cutting aid. And plenty of blame goes to the Arabs who kept Reagan dangling for six months before refusing to give him the backing he expected. There's a lesson here for both Obama and Netanyahu: Don't follow your predecessor's example.

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