Obama arrives at crossroads on Middle East policy

United States President Barack Obama is arriving at a crossroads in his bold bid to revive Arab-Israeli peace talks as he prepares to make his debut at the United Nations General Assembly next week.

Obama, now eight months in office, risks losing credibility as a new type of peacemaker in the White House if he fails to take critical decisions by the end of the month, analysts warn.

They say he must finally articulate his long-awaited peace plan and push past his narrower aim of restarting negotiations by striking a still elusive deal on freezing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Not all were sure he would, however.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, said Obama has reached a point where he must either outline his vision for peace or settle for a more modest aim of managing the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“He’s raised expectations that the peace process is going to be important to him,” Kurtzer said.

“The higher they get, and the longer they persist, the harder the fall is going to be. So yeah, the time has come for the president to tell us what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it,” he said.

Obama must now “articulate a more comprehensive approach”, Kurtzer said, even if his envoy, George Mitchell, fails to wrest a freeze on settlements from the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The president’s peace quest risks being “held hostage” by the search for an elusive settlement deal aimed at kick-starting talks with the Palestinians and prompting Arab states to take steps toward normalising ties with Israel.

Kurtzer said Obama may still be able to launch a formal peace process during a three-way summit with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

Or he could instead choose a larger conference — like those in Madrid in 1991 and Annapolis in 2007 — or he may give a “launching speech of some sort” at the General Assembly, Kurtzer said.

The world’s leaders and top diplomats will be in New York to watch the new US president, already praised for taking a much earlier interest in Middle East peacemaking than any of his recent predecessors, particularly George Bush.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also due to meet in New York with her counterparts from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, the so-called quartet that launched a road map for Middle East peace in 2003.

The road map calls for establishing a Palestinian state living in peace with a secure Israel.

“The next two weeks are critical,” according to Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland.

Decision time is at hand, he said, not just because the General Assembly looms large but because the Obama team senses it “cannot go on indefinitely” negotiating an elusive settlement deal, no matter how important one is.

If there is no such deal, “how they [the administration] decide to proceed I don’t think is entirely clear at this point”, Telhami said.

The president, more than even his advisers, will have to decide on the next move, because he has made it a priority “in the context of his strategic communication plan both toward the Arabs and Muslims globally”, he said.

“The Arab-Israeli issue, whether the administration wants it or not, has become a test of credibility for the effectiveness of the new administration’s foreign policy,” he added.

“There’s no way they can go into a crisis-management phase,” he said, disagreeing with Kurtzer.

“The General Assembly is a very good occasion for them [the administration] to set their sights on, as a way of wrapping up what they clearly see as a phase that has to come to a conclusion,” Telhami said.

Marina Ottaway, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Obama faced a dilemma on whether to go ahead in declaring his broader Arab-Israeli vision without a settlement deal.

On the one hand, she said, Obama risks “losing the goodwill” he has earned with the Arabs if he delays further. On the other, she suspects Israel is warning Obama it will not back him if he outlines his vision.

“I don’t have the impression at this point that they [the administration] are preparing to come out with a statement saying this is what we all have to do,” Ottaway said. — AFP

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