US President Obama and Hillary Clinton 311 (R).
(photo credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama is soon to detail America’s Middle East policy in an effort to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, amid revolts reshaping the Arab world.
“The president will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at the US-Islamic World Forum Tuesday night.
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“This includes renewed pursuit of comprehensive Arab- Israeli peace,” she said, listing American-core interests that are to be addressed – including promoting human rights, countering the threat of Iran and defeating al-Qaida.
“While it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership,” Clinton said. “And the president and I are committed to that.”
White House and State Department press officers refused to elaborate on Clinton’s remarks Wednesday.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that the US must move quickly on its planned drive to revive Middle East talks before the Palestinians seek recognition as a state.
“It’s time for the American administration to move before September,” said Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh. “Talk about plans and new initiatives is not enough. There should be an effective US role and strong policy against settlements. The administration has started to realize the situation in the Mideast is dangerous.”
Democratic Sen. John Kerry spoke at some length about the prospect of a renewed American peace bid earlier on Tuesday – which he put in the context of a diplomatic initiative some believe is forthcoming from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is set to visit Washington in late May.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has a trip planned to come over here. I believe he is going to address the Congress. I hope he will make a proposal there that will have a credible foundation to it,” said Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the US-Islamic forum. “And I suspect it is very possible that President Obama will even step out ahead of that and possibly – I say possibly – make his own contribution to where he thinks the process ought to go in the meantime.”
Kerry described this “vision of what might unfold here” in the context of a looming threat by the Palestinians to seek a unilateral declaration of statehood from the UN in September.
“It could greatly complicate matters,” Kerry said of such a move. “I’m not sure it will in fact advance the process. It could even force a retrenchment and change some politics in a dangerous way.”
Kerry added he hoped a diplomatic initiative would “preclude unintended consequences.”
“Everyone is well aware of those dangers of September,” he said, “and I think there will be a genuine effort to try to avoid things which you are not initiating and controlling yourself.”
Middle East expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy agreed that the Palestinian timeline could be pushing the Obama administration to act.
“The US believes that a negotiated deal is always preferable to a very unwieldy September at the UN,” he said. “If nothing is done, we’re going to fly toward September. Whenever there’s a vacuum, it’s filled by others.”
In addition to the Palestinian effort at the UN, the Quartet, made up of the EU, US, UN and Russia, was scheduled to hold a meeting on Friday where the Europeans would push for a delineation of the contours of a future Palestinian state.
The session was scrapped after pressure by the US, out of concern that the meeting would inflame a sensitive situation rather than push in a positive direction, according to Washington sources. In the short-term, the Passover and Easter holidays will likely preclude any major steps in the coming weeks.
Netanyahu is expected to come to the US for the American Israel Public Affairs Committees’s annual conference on May 23-25.
His appearance before Congress is yet to be finalized, although any policy speech he gives might come in Israel either before or after his trip. Obama’s timing for his own policy speech is also unclear. In addition, there’s the question as to whether Abbas will join the diplomatic activity.
“I think any creative US diplomacy would naturally try to match a statement from Netanyahu with a statement from Abbas,” Makovsky noted.
In addition, some see the Obama effort as an opportunity to push hard on Israel, while others think it’s likely to be coordinated with Jerusalem – particularly since the US chose to scuttle the Quartet move over fears it would be counter-productive.
Spokesmen from the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this story. But other Israeli sources said they saw no indication that the US was looking to bring out its own plan at this point, and instead wanted to “try to get both sides to take steps.
To that end, US advisers, including Dennis Ross and David Hale, have been in touch with Israeli officials in recent weeks.Herb Keinon and Reuters contributed to this report.