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The past week may go down as a turning point in the search for Middle East peace - a turn in the wrong direction. Efforts to relaunch the peace process encountered serious setbacks, and while some may be gloating, the result is not likely to be a breathing spell while everyone figures out where to go next, but a dangerous period of uncertainty and instability.
While US peace envoy George Mitchell was spending another frustrating week in the region in another failed effort to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table, President Barack Obama admitted his year-old effort to restart the talks has been a failure. Neither side, he concluded, is ready to make the difficult decisions necessary to move toward peace. It was a "well, duh," moment as the president acknowledged what has been obvious to everyone else for the past year.
"We overestimated our ability to persuade them... [to] start engaging in meaningful conversation... If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high," Obama said.
Israeli papers reported the Prime Minister's Office was "gloating" over the setback, confidently predicting the president would have no choice but to put the issue on the back burner for a while. That may please Israeli rejectionists, but it could be dangerous; there is no such thing as standing still in the Middle East.
One big question is what a downgrading of the peace process will mean for already-strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem. There are many ways an administration can express displeasure: votes at the UN, denying access to the latest military technology, less intelligence sharing or high-level exchanges and limiting the extent of strategic cooperation are a few.
Putting the peace process on hold until everyone is ready can be very risky. "A deadlock will lead to another round of violence that will serve Hamas," predicted Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Mitchell said the president remains "committed" to the peace process, but "engaged" may be another matter. Since the top leaders can't get together, Mitchell has proposed low-level talks; observers in Jerusalem suggest the issues will also be low-level.
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Obama said Israel showed some willingness to modify its policies but was not ready for the "bold gestures" he considered essential. More rigid were the Palestinians, and Mitchell warned PA President Mahmoud Abbas he must be more flexible if he wants talks to resume and expects US help in the process.
THEIR RHETORIC aside, neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor Abbas has shown much enthusiasm for making peace. In the wake of Obama's expressed disappointment that neither is ready to make history-changing decisions, they have ratcheted up their finger pointing and name calling in an effort to divert attention from their own responsibility.
Each side self-righteously insists it is ready to return to negotiations without any conditions but the other is the real obstacle.
Top PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas's demand for a total settlement freeze, including east Jerusalem, "is not a Palestinian condition, it is an Israeli obligation." The Palestinians are also demanding to "resume negotiations where we left them in December 2008" when they turned down premier Ehud Olmert's far-reaching peace offer. (Olmert's chief negotiator, Udi Dekel, said Abbas rejected all Israeli offers.) And now there's a new Abbas demand: no more direct talks with the Israelis. Instead, he wants the Americans to handle that for him.
A senior Israeli official declared: "The key to the resumption of talks is not with us but with the Palestinians."
Unless you take exception to Netanyahu's latest demand for an Israeli presence on the Palestinian state's border with Jordan, or that it recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, or that Jerusalem is not on the table.
This weekend Netanyahu planted a tree at a settlement and declared he intends to hold on to parts of the West Bank "for eternity." Each side says it is anxious to get to the table but the other is holding it back with unreasonable demands. They're half right - the part about unreasonable demands.
Both sides know their conditions are unacceptable to the other, and that's no accident.
President Obama was unusually candid about the failure of his Middle East peace initiative. One of his biggest mistakes, which he didn't mention, was his unwillingness to take his case directly to the Israeli people, to stand up before the Knesset and spell out his vision for Middle East peace.
Both Abbas and Netanyahu want to preserve good relations with Washington but are hobbled by internal politics. Netanyahu's coalition depends on a number of right-wing parties that oppose Palestinian statehood and are allied with the settler movement. Abbas's secular nationalist Fatah is locked in a fight for survival with the Islamist Hamas, which vows to destroy Israel, not make peace.
The administration knows it's dangerous to walk away from the peace
process, so look for Mitchell and others to drop in periodically to
maintain the impression of US involvement and to counter charges the
peace process is dead.
Abbas and Netanyahu will keep talking
about how much they want peace, how they're ready but for the other's
intransigence, but the truth is they may be ready to talk the talk but
not walk the walk. And in the Middle East, motion without movement is a
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