September 23, 2009
White House Pivots in Mideast Peace Bid
By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER
UNITED NATIONS — President Obama, who has met immovable resistance from Israel over his demand for a full freeze on settlements in the West Bank, is largely setting that issue aside as a first step toward restarting Middle East peace talks.
Rather, Mr. Obama, unable to extract that concession from Israel or other confidence-building moves from Arab states, seems intent to press Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate all the difficult issues between them toward a final deal that has eluded negotiators, and bedeviled American presidents, since President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The pivot toward tackling issues that include the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state greatly increases the stakes for an administration that has found even small advances to be beyond reach. It also risks making Mr. Obama appear ineffective in having not gained a tangible early goal of his Middle East policy.
But it also seems to reflect the president’s impatience with the slow pace of the peace negotiations and a pragmatic, if also potentially perilous, desire to move forward on something that he has made a hallmark of his foreign policy agenda.
“It is past time to stop talking about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday after meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly’s opening.
“Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon,” Mr. Obama said, flanked by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas. “So my message to these two leaders is clear: despite all the obstacles, all the history, all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward.”
For Mr. Obama, Tuesday was a day in which he saw firsthand the difficulty of transferring the enormous good will his election generated overseas into concrete concessions from America’s allies on his foreign policy agenda.
In a meeting with President Hu Jintao of China, Mr. Obama tried to get the Chinese government on the same page as the United States on Iran policy. He told Mr. Hu that if scheduled nuclear talks between world powers and Iran next month did not result in a breakthrough — and administration officials were pessimistic that they would — then the United States would want China’s support for tougher sanctions against Iran.
But administration officials said it remained unclear whether the Chinese would sign on to tougher sanctions if and when the time came.
Obama administration officials insist that they are not giving up on efforts to get a complete freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Nor, they said, do they plan to stop exhorting Arab governments to make diplomatic gestures toward Israel as a way to jump-start peace talks.
“Our objective all along has been to relaunch meaningful final status negotiations in a context that offered the prospect for success,” Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, later told reporters. “We have never identified the steps requested as ends in themselves.”
But the administration, for four months, has explicitly demanded a settlement freeze from Israel, saying that it was necessary to help get Arab leaders to buy into the peace process.
In May, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended Mr. Obama’s meetings Tuesday with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, said of Mr. Obama, “He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.” Such exceptions refer to waivers that children of settlers receive from the Israeli government to build houses near their parents, something the Israeli government has adamantly refused to stop.
Since then, administration officials have focused their efforts on achieving a freeze, at considerable expense to Mr. Obama’s standing in Israel. His approval ratings there dropped into the single digits as he increased pressure on the Israeli government.
Mr. Mitchell has carried Mr. Obama’s message to Mr. Netanyahu over months of meetings, prodding the Israeli government to agree to a slowdown in construction of settlements. But Mr. Netanyahu, seeking to mollify his right-wing governing coalition, refused to stop “natural growth” or settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel views as part of its capital.
During the meetings on Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama told Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian officials that he would not be able to deliver right away on a settlement freeze, but that he would push Israel to move forward quickly on final status negotiations, according to Arab officials with knowledge of the meetings.
Mr. Obama told the Palestinians that he would push the Israelis to have “clear terms of references for the negotiations,” one Arab official said, referring to the fear among many Palestinian officials that Mr. Netanyahu might try to enter negotiations without agreeing to specifically address entrenched issues like the fate of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees.
Mr. Obama himself expressed his impatience with the pace of the peace process, as well as in the limited successes it had yielded so far.
“Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security, but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations,” Mr. Obama said on Tuesday. “Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity. But they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues.”
He added that “it is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that’s necessary to achieve our goals.”
“Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon,” he said. “And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed.”
The White House is also trying to box in Mr. Netanyahu, administration officials said, by using his own unwillingness to agree to resolve the interim issue — in this case, a settlement freeze — to force him to a place he has indicated he really does not want to go yet: the final status talks.
“They are blocking off his escape hatches,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “They’re saying, if you can’t do the interim, then we’ll do the final status.”
Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine, called Mr. Obama’s move on Tuesday “a positive step.”
“This is something the Palestinians definitely want,” he said.
Israeli officials, for their part, expressed satisfaction that Mr. Obama was letting up the pressure on settlements. “The administration recognizes that Israel has made major concessions in the absence of any substantive concessions on the part of the Arabs,” said Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.