(photo credit: AP)
Despite recent Arab statements opposing US demands for confidence-building steps towards Israel, the US anticipates it will have the pieces in place to formally re-launch the Arab-Israel peace process in the coming weeks.
The Obama administration is seeking a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in exchange for Palestinian security reforms and Arab gestures towards Israel. With those in place, the US plans to announce both those steps and a resumption of negotiations, likely at an international conference, a senior State Department official told The Jerusalem Post Monday. He noted that no final decision had been made about the format, and that a simultaneous release of press announcements in various capitals or other mechanisms might be used.
When asked about the timeframe of the efforts being led by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell at a press briefing Monday, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Monday it would be "a matter of weeks."
The senior State Department official said he was referring to "completing the current phase of the process," which has consisted of Mitchell consulting with officials from the various countries in the region on the steps they would be taking at the US's behest. He described that process as requiring a few more weeks of negotiation, though he noted Muslim and Jewish holidays coming in August and September could delay things.
The comments of Arab leaders in Washington, however, have not appeared to be in line with what the US is seeking and what Israel would like to see in exchange for a settlement freeze.
On Monday, the Emir of Kuwait, Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, met with US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Judeh voiced reservations about confidence-building measures, arguing that "there has been in the past an over-investment, perhaps, by the parties in pursuing confidence-building measures, conflict-management techniques, including transitional arrangements, and an overemphasis on gestures, perhaps at the expense of reaching the actual end game."
But he went on to back the concept as long as that end-game of reaching a final-status deal for a two-state solution was in place, saying, "What we need is confidence-building measures - confidence-rebuilding measures, I should say - that resurrect people's faith in negotiations and that create a conducive environment for launching negotiations."
His words came on the heels of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal's comments in Washington Friday pouring cold water on the idea of confidence-building steps, pointing to divisions among Arab countries as to what should be done and complicating the administration's efforts to reach a deal. After Saud's own meeting with Clinton, he told members of the media that "incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and - we believe - will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures
will also not bring peace."
The Kuwaiti emir was more reticent than the Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers, saying after his meeting with Obama, "It is in our interest that peace be brought about, and the indicator is that the recent Arab peace initiative that was agreed upon by all of the Arab parties and states, and we would implement this peace initiative when Israel implements and fulfills its obligations."
The Obama administration has welcomed the peace initiative, in which the region's Arab countries would recognize Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from land captured in 1967 and compromises on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The confidence-building measures - incipient signs of normalization such as opening trade offices and granting overflight rights to Israeli planes - are in part an effort to form a bridge to discussions and potential implementation of some of the plan's guiding principles.
Even so, and despite the influx of Arab dignitaries - a list to which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's name is set to be added on August 18 after a previous trip was cancelled - the Obama administration has had difficulty making visible progress. The visits follow a tour of key regional stops by Mitchell, who has also been having difficulties pressuring Israel to completely freeze settlement activity, including natural growth, though there are expectations that a compromise will soon be hammered out in which Israel suspends settlement construction for a least a limited period.
Though the US has recently tempered its criticism of settlement activity, Clinton on Monday did sharply criticize Israeli eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem, saying, "These actions are deeply regrettable. I have said before that the eviction of families and demolition of homes in East Jerusalem is not in keeping with Israeli obligations. And I urge the government of Israel and municipal officials to refrain from such provocative actions."
David Makovsky, co-author of the book of the Middle East "Myths, Illusions and Peace" assessed that the US focus on the "perfect" - a complete freeze - instead of the more doable "good" of halting settlement expansion had raised Arab expectations to the extent that now they don't want to negotiate with Israel, as it is resisting the freeze.
"It's hard to ask the Arabs to be more Zionist that the US on settlements," he said. "We can't meet those expectations, and instead of facilitating an early resumption of talks, we're totally blocked."
The Obama administration's idea, he noted, was that the settlement freeze would instead elicit the confidence-building measures from Israel that would create a new dynamic for restarting negotiations.
"The Arabs are not making it easy for the United States to do it because they're not offering anything that could be made public at this time," he said.
And while Jordan and Egypt have been the most forthcoming, Middle East expert Aaron David Miller pointed out they each have the least to give, as they already have already crossed their "red lines" with Israel and made peace.
But Miller, who worked on US Middle East policy when then-secretary of state James Baker got the Madrid conference off the ground, took a more optimistic view of America's efforts.
"I remember how the Madrid conference worked and it was nine months of hard diplomacy amidst extreme skepticism," he recalled, painting the current Arab and Israeli stances as posturing that could well be changed.
While he held out little to no hope that Palestinians and Israelis would bridge their differences over final-status issues, he estimated that America's efforts to elicit Arab gestures and enough of a settlement freeze for a conference to be held this fall was "quite reasonable," and that the likelihood of it happening was "quite high."
He described such a conference as "a high-visibility event which would go beyond Annapolis because you've already had some degree of traction on the ground."