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    Middle East
     Jul 23, 2009
Doubts over Obama's 'peace engine'
By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM - A joke deriding United States President Barack Obama is making the rounds in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, according to Aluf Benn, the normally well-informed diplomatic correspondent for the Ha'aretz newspaper: "What do Americans do when anything breaks down in their home - when the sink is blocked, the toilet overflows, or a fuse snaps? Simple: They ask Barack Obama to give a speech and the problem is solved."

The scoffing tone apart, the account reflects a growing belief among both Israelis and Palestinians that the Obama administration is unlikely to effect any major change that will help resolve their deep-rooted conflict.

Equal disbelief, but for different reasons: while the Palestinian


Authority leadership is becoming ever more skeptical about the White House's ability to pressure Israel to shift its obdurate positions on peacemaking, Israel's political establishment is hopeful that the Obama promise of effecting change will remain just so much talk.

Months into the new White House, and the region is still waiting for the president to lay out his specific terms for peace. Previously, it had been suggested this would come in a major policy pronouncement earlier this month. Will it ever come?

On the face of it, the president has a good reason for keeping mum. US hopes for a productive peace policy are predicated on the deep rift between the two Palestinian national movements, Islamist Hamas and nationalist Fatah, being healed. The two Palestinian factions failed to meet a July 7 deadline set by the brokering party, Egypt. For the umpteenth time, the talks are now suspended.

Obama seems to feel there's no need to elaborate on his view of how peace will look - after all, the outlines of the US's promised agreement are already enshrined in the 2003 peace road map. Fulfillment of his vision is less immediately dependent on political practicalities, more on all sides meeting moral exigencies he considers to be the fulcrum of a fruitful peace process.

Rather than endless talk shaping a grandiose peace plan, US officials are busy creating an interlocking bag of nuts and bolts that may ignite the elaborate peace engine and finally make it work. With the US serving as the central axle, the interactive players will engage one another in a series of parallel moves and parallel concessions.

Obama's first change of gear was to apply pressure to Israel to agree to a settlement freeze in the West Bank. He plans on this enabling him to press the Arab world to move gradually towards normalizing relations with Israel, thereby shifting peace moves into a higher gear.

Meanwhile, the US is switching on another part of the peace engine. This time, Syria is being cast as the central wheel.

The US promise of restoration of diplomatic relations with Syria has already paid dividends: Syria kept out of the Lebanese elections. That put a brake on Hezbollah.

Further, the US and Saudi Arabia are prodding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to re-delineate his western frontier with Lebanon in order to allow for an Israeli withdrawal from the Sheba Farms area that straddles the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan.

Should that obstacle be removed, and Israel indeed withdraw from Sheba, that would further undermine Hezbollah's raison d'etre and argument that it cannot disarm, and must continue the armed resistance against Israel.

Even more significantly, Syria appears to be acquiescing in the US call (through Egypt) for it to encourage the process of internal Palestinian reconciliation. Reliable reports from Damascus suggest that Syria has already begun blocking funds that were previously earmarked for the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. The radical group is already under pressure from Hamas not to resume the shelling of Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza border, and to align more closely with Hamas.

Everything seems to be interconnected in the structure Obama is building. The rationale seems to be that all parties must do what is demanded of them according to a strict timetable. Without Syria there can be no Palestinian reconciliation, without which there will be no Palestinian unity government, without which the Palestinian leadership would have a hard time making concessions and the Arabs remain aloof, without which Netanyahu would feel he could brush off the US demand on settlements.

Obama is banking on the peace machine moving into high gear as soon as all the interlocking wheels are in place, and as soon as all the parties have understood the potency of his moral dictate about all sides needing to come to terms with the needs of the other side.

Israeli Middle East analyst Zvi Barel says that "Obama - rightly from his perspective - is trying to steer clear of a comprehensive plan with a specific timetable. But this is a dangerous gamble. There are too many reciprocal processes, too many loopholes, too many landmines."

That analysis, however, sidesteps what has come to be known as "the Obama ripple effect". The region had appeared ready for change just because the US president shifted dramatically from the barren legacy of his predecessor and has himself laid down new moral parameters for resolving the conflict.

United States Middle East experts well tuned into the administration say forcefully that just because one grain of dirt might slip into the mechanism, Obama will not allow the elaborately constructed peace machine to splutter.

But, from the position being struck by both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, Obama may soon be called upon to remove more than just a few grains of dirt.

The Palestinian daily al-Ayyam, which is close to the Palestinian Authority, reported on Saturday that special US presidential envoy George Mitchell will tell PA President Mahmoud Abbas that the administration has been unable to secure Israel's consent to stop all building in settlements in the West Bank - as the White House has been demanding.

Palestinian sources say that Abbas, in return, will make plain that he is simply not prepared to resume negotiations with Israel as long as settlement building does not come to a complete halt. Mitchell is due back in the area this week.

For their part, Israeli officials seem to have recovered from the "shock" of the Obama plain-talk encounter with Netanyahu last month and his insistence on the unconditional settlement freeze. Now, they believe that Israel can find a way to parry the threat of naked US pressure to get peace talks restarting without substantial parallel movement from the Arab side.

No one is saying it out loud in the Israeli corridors of power, but listening to talk from Netanyahu officials, one's left with the distinct impression that the unspoken punch line of the anti-Obama joke is: "He'll do the talking, we'll do the policy-making."

(Inter Press Service)

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(24 hpurs to 11:59pm ET, July 20, 2009)


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