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Obama to Pay Heavy Price for Direct Talks, Says Ex-US Official

Obama has to pay a heavy price to get out of a tight corner he made for himself—and may return to the same place, says former US Mideast diplomat.
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
First Publish: 10/3/2010, 11:40 AM / Last Update: 10/3/2010, 11:49 AM

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U.S. President Barack Obama may have to pay a heavy price to get out of a tight corner he made for himself—and may return to the same place, says former U.S. Mideast negotiator Aaron Miller.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has frozen the talks because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not agree to extend the same 10-month building freeze that was instituted to satisfy Abbas’s condition for talks, which he then refused.

American officials are not accepting the “no” as final, and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell remains optimistic he can convince the PA leader to sit down at the same table with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Moreover, the State Department on Friday still insisted that a final agreement for a new Arab state headed by the Palestinian Authority can be concluded within a year.

Miller, who was involved with the Oslo talks and is an old hand at Middle East negotiations, is doubtful. He told the French news agency AFP, "They [the Obama administration] now need to pay or are considering paying both parties for simply sitting down at the table.

"If the price is this steep this early on, you can only imagine what will be required when they truly run into an impasse on the substance," said Miller, now an analyst with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He explained that U.S. President Barack Obama created his own dilemma by over-hyping the carefully choreographed talks between Abbas and Netanyahu in Washington last month.

Despite State Department claims that the two leaders spoke about core issues, PA officials have said the entire session was devoted to procedural issues—primarily the building freeze on new Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria and which Abbas has insisted be extended.

The “momentum” that was the basis of Mitchell’s strategy died the second the two and a half hour session ended.

"They took on this project in August in order to pre-empt the crisis they now find themselves in," according to Miller. “They hyped, I think, probably unnecessarily, the re-launch of the negotiations in Washington."

The Obama administration reportedly has promised Abbas that Israel’s building in Judea and Samaria will be on a limited basis. Abbas rejected the price.

On the other side, Israel reportedly was offered a guarantee that the extension of the freeze would be for only 60 days. David Makovsky, a widely respected analyst with close ties to Dennis Ross, one of the Oslo negotiators and who now works with President Obama, posted online a list of other guarantees:

“The United States will veto any U.N. Security Council initiative - Arab or otherwise - relating to Arab-Israeli peace during the agreed one-year negotiating period. Third, Washington pledged to accept the legitimacy of existing Israeli security needs and not seek to redefine them. In this context, the letter explicitly mentions the need to ensure a complete ban on the smuggling of rockets, mortars, arms, and related items, as well as the infiltration of terrorists into Israel…. The letter offers to help maintain a transitional period for Jordan Valley security that is longer than any other aspect of a negotiated peace - an apparent allusion to keeping Israeli troops in that region for an extended period of time.

“Washington pledges to engage Israel and Arab states in discussions of a ‘regional security architecture,’ addressing the need for more consultations on Iran….

“Finally, the letter explicitly discusses the need to enhance Israel's defense capabilities in the event that the parties reach security arrangements…. The Obama administration realizes that these needs would mean an unspecified increase in U.S. security assistance to Israel once a peace agreement is concluded.”

Like Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu also said “no," reflecting a growing distrust of Washington both by Israel as well as the Arab world.

If Mitchell succeeds in bringing Abbas back to the table, the Obama administration eventually will face a likely worse dilemma—failure to achieve an agreement on security for Israel and borders for the proposed PA state.

Virtually all State Department reporters are extremely skeptical of an accord in one year, if at all.

One reporter asked U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley last week, “You’ve spent several months addressing the settlements issue and it’s not solved yet. How can you achieve a peace agreement in one year and you didn’t discuss yet the core issues?”

Crowley replied he does “not agree” with the assessment and claimed that the core issues are being discussed.

Meanwhile, Mitchell traveled to Egypt on Sunday and Abbas traveled to Jordan as all sides prepare for the next episode in President Obama's endeavor to prove he can convince Israel and the Arab world to sign an agreement.