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President Barack Obama is expected to reveal his Middle East strategy next month, very likely in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. In many ways it may resemble his predecessor's 2002 vision for Arab-Israeli peace, but the question everyone will be asking is whether this time the American president is really serious.
George W. Bush, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, set his sights on human rights and democratic reform across the Arab world, and his centerpiece was to be Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was the first time an American president publicly endorsed Palestinian statehood, and it won widespread international support.
Traditional American allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia complained he was more interested in reforming their behavior than in helping the Palestinians.
Relations between the Bush administration and Arab autocrats chilled as they decided he was all talk and no action when it came to making peace, and now they're asking Obama if he is any different.
They are impressed that Obama moved quickly to challenge Israel's settlements policy and by his low-key approach to human rights.
Palestinians who negotiated with the Ehud Olmert government last year despite continued Israeli construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank now feel they can't be more flexible than the new US president. They are demanding a total, permanent settlement freeze, including a halt to current construction, before resuming any talks. They won't get it.
PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu is in London this week to meet with special US envoy George Mitchell to work out a settlement compromise - publicly, Netanyahu is offering a six-month freeze, exempting Jerusalem; Washington wants one to two years, Jerusalem included. Look for them to settle on a one-year renewable freeze, including Jerusalem, and completion of projects already under way.
But there will be no breakthrough in London. Netanyahu wants to save that for his September meeting with Obama.
Obama won't be getting everything he wants from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas either, notably an end of incitement to violence and enhanced efforts to prevent terror.
His goal is to get enough from both so he can bring them together to announce the resumption of negotiations plus some gestures by Gulf Arab states such as reopening liaison offices with Israel and approving commercial overflights by El Al. He is also reportedly planning to convene an international conference to give both sides essential reinforcement.
Israel would prefer the Bush hands-off approach, and the Arabs want Washington to table its own comprehensive peace plan and ram it through. Neither will happen.
Obama has challenged leaders on both sides of the conflict to show some "courageous leadership" if the peace process is to move out of the "rut" it is in.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in Washington last week for the first time in five years, declared relations strained during the Bush years have been repaired. He said Obama's speech to the Islamic world in June from Cairo "removed all doubts about the United States in the Muslim world." The Saudis, however, have repeatedly rebuffed the administration's calls for help, and have said not to expect their assistance until Israel embraces their 2002 peace initiative.
The Saudi attitude has contributed to the administration shifting its focus from Riyadh to Cairo as its new go-to best friend in the Arab world. Enhancing Egypt's appeal is its relationship with Israel, its influence with Palestinian leaders, its willingness to stand up to Iran and to align itself with Washington in that conflict and its geographic importance.
Obama and Netanyahu are working hard to tone down the divisive rhetoric and make shalom. Netanyahu may have seen his popularity rise in Israel over his initial defiance of Obama's call for a freeze, but it didn't help him here, where Jewish support for Obama remains strong. Despite his initially defiant tone on settlements, Netanyahu is now boasting that he hasn't issued a single new building permit since taking office, and tenders for new construction are suspended until 2010.
Haaretz warned Netanyahu against any tricks. "Israel must not try once again to pull any fast ones in the form of pretexts, new terminology for continued development beyond the Green Line and provocative settlements in east Jerusalem," it editorialized.
Similarly, the Palestinians have proven adept at saying one thing while doing the opposite. Late last year Abbas rejected a far-reaching deal offered by Olmert prior to the election, but now he wants Netanyahu to put it back on the table and resume negotiations from that point. He ignores the fact that there has been an election, and elections have consequences.
George W. Bush vowed to "ride herd" on peace talks but never did; Barack Obama has said he intends to be actively engaged, and reportedly wants to see results within two years. Is that enough time to get both sides back to where they were last autumn?
Are they ready to try?
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