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obama speaks to crowd 248.88 ap.(Photo by: AP)
Analysis: Does Obama's candor on naivete inspire confidence?
Like Americans, Mideast leaders won't play cat and mouse.

The new year is a time for frank introspection and earnest resolutions, and US President Barack Obama engaged in exactly that during an interview with Time magazine at the start of the second year of his presidency.

In doing so, he showed considerable candor as he acknowledged having made mistakes and missteps in his Middle East policy during the last year even as he recommitted himself to the peace process.

But then again, internal reflection is one thing and public confession quite another. Sharing as Obama did raises questions about whether he's learned the right lessons.

For starters, detractors have long labeled Obama as naïve and hubristic; in the Time interview, he seems to echo their assessment.

He told Joe Klein that the political realities confronting Palestinian and Israeli leaders made it harder than expected for them to come to the negotiating table. "I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to [negotiate] when their politics ran contrary to that," he said, adding later that, "If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."

It's as though legions of Middle East experts, Arab and Israeli officials and large chunks of the American Jewish community hadn't told the administration exactly that, repeatedly. Acknowledging not having comprehended that reality smacks of, indeed, naivete; proceeding in the face of such advice suggests, well, hubris.

For another, one of the most widespread critiques of this administration's approach to the peace process has been its penchant for declaring in public what should have been whispered in private. The unfulfilled demand of Israel to totally freeze settlements, including in East Jerusalem, is perhaps the most outstanding such example, with many observers suggesting that more closed-door communications would have yielded better results, and it would also not have raised the stakes so high that it became difficult for Arabs and Palestinians to accept anything less than a complete construction halt.

These latest public ruminations, while honest, also might not be strategically helpful. Whose cause does Obama aid, exactly, by acknowledging that his administration misread the situation such that it "overestimated" some of the basics, i.e., the difficulty of the situation and that it is "as intractable a problem as you get"? Does it inspire the confidence, does it command the respect whose lack some have argued made it that much harder for the US president to extract the concessions he sought from the parties?

And finally, one of Obama's major setbacks was his loss of the Israeli street early on last year. That was one error, at least, that the administration seemed to understand and actively attempt to fix in recent months.

Though Obama didn't make grander gestures of visiting Israel or even giving interviews to the Israeli media, the White House did reach out to American Jewry, heavily supporting Israel on issues like the Goldstone report and Turkish shunning of the IDF, and publicly praised the settlement moratorium Jerusalem eventually adopted.

Yet, in two breaths, Obama undermined those efforts, simultaneously sowing doubts about their sincerity.

In the interview, Obama said that for both sides‚ political environments have made it "very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation." This comment ignores Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's calls, from his first Oval Office meeting with Obama in May, for an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians (who, on the other hand, refuse to sit down without a total settlement freeze).

And worse yet, from an Israeli perspective, he went on to say that, "Although the Israelis, I think, after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies, they still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures."

In effect - if not his intention - Obama belittled a settlement moratorium which, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out, is unprecedented in its scope, not to mention Netanyahu's reversal to endorse a Palestinian state and his willingness to hold substantive talks.

More to the point, if Obama doesn't encourage Israelis for what most see as the maximum Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition can deliver short of Palestinian reciprocation, the public and government will question the utility of further concessions. And they will raise the charge that he still doesn't understand the political realities on the ground in Israel.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Obama admitted a lack of discernment concerning the "political problems" confronting Israelis and Palestinians as he faced a major domestic reversal born in part by a lack of discernment concerning the political problems of his own party.

In the loss of the Massachusetts US Senate seat held for 46 years by Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy to an unknown Republican state legislator, Obama forfeited his super-majority in the Senate and with it the momentum for passing his signature legislation, health care, as well as the sense of a popular mandate for his policy agenda.

Moreover, his political team's inability to assess and then address the vulnerability of such a crucial seat, which should have been a shoo-in for the Democrats, has raised questions about what else his staff is missing. And what else he's no longer on top of.

These questions are being asked not just in Washington, but in Jerusalem and Cairo and Beirut.

As an Arab reporter said at a rare press briefing White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer held Friday: "Given the increasing domestic problems you're having at home [in the US], how will this impact the foreign policy agenda? There is an increasing sense in the Middle East that this will tie the President's hands, especially on the peace process; you know, that the administration is in a weaker position and has less momentum than when you guys started."

In response Hammer reassured the reporter that the president wouldn't be distracted from the peace process by his political fortunes at home.

"His commitment is not driven at all by the politics of our country," he said. "Don't be distracted by domestic politics; the President certainly isn't when it comes to national security."

Pressed by another Arab reporter on Obama's Time magazine quotes, and who exactly the president held responsible for the current impasse, Hammer said that "this is not an issue of assigning blame to either of the parties." Rather, he said, the course of events needed to be put "in context," and referred to the Gaza war at the start of Obama's term as creating a "difficult situation" that then ended, but was followed by the election of the Netanyahu government.

"You had a new Israeli government, so from the get go it was going to be a challenge to move forward and of course trying to establish talks between the parties," Hammer said.

Still, he stressed, the main point was the White House's continued focus on the peace process.

As Obama said at the conclusion of the Time interview, "We are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren." Happy new year.

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