WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton concluded her Middle East trip Thursday without a deal to keep direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority going past the end of the month — but with signs that a compromise might yet be found over an expiring Israeli moratorium on settlement activity.
Secretary Clinton wrapped up three days of talks in the region in Jordan, where she said her meetings in Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had “convinced” her that “this is the time and these are the leaders to achieve the result we all seek.”
At the same time, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell was traveling to Syria and Lebanon, underscoring the Obama administration’s effort to achieve not just an Israeli-Palestinian accord but a comprehensive regional peace agreement.
Still, with Israel balking at international pressure aimed at winning an extension of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on settlement construction – set to expire on Sept. 26 – tensions were rising over efforts to find a way around an approaching crisis. Mr. Abbas has said he would not continue the talks if the moratorium is not extended, while Netanyahu has let it be known that an extension is not in order.
With attention focused on the quest to keep talks going rather than on prospects for progress on substantive issues, some regional analysts are beginning to warn of the dangers for the US if talks so ceremoniously launched by the Obama administration just two weeks ago now die, or even if they find a way to limp along but with no meaningful advances.
“Fundamentally, the talks for the purpose of talking no longer help us,” says Steve Clemons, publisher of the Washington Note, a widely read blog, and director of the American security program at the New America Foundation in Washington. “It leads to a perception of weakness about us” in the region, he says – something that complicates other issues on the US plate in the region, such as countering Iranian ambitions and nuclear proliferation.
Clinton had sounded optimistic notes during her trip over prospects for finding a compromise to the settlement moratorium expiration, while both she and Senator Mitchell said in public comments that the two parties had begun to address substantive issues in their first round of talks in the region.
Aides to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he had encouraged Netanyahu to extend the moratorium for three months, giving the two sides time to negotiate a final border between Israel and a future Palestine. Once borders were set, Mr. Mubarak is said to have reasoned, each side could proceed to housing construction with assurance that it was occurring on its territory.
There were no indications that Mubarak’s idea had gained Israeli favor, but at the same time Abbas did sound a conciliatory tone in remarks with Clinton in Ramallah, suggesting to some observers that a compromise was in the making.
Still, the pitfalls for the US in a collapse of the nascent peace effort loom large, some US analysts say.
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says that not only will it be bad news “for America’s power in that volcanic corner of the world” if Obama’s bid at reaching a Mideast peace settlement in one year crashes in less than one month, but failure would likely mean a return of the violence that has been mostly absent from the Israeli-Palestinian equation for more than a year.
“The real danger between these two … is not failure to negotiate; it is the failure of the negotiations,” says Mr. Gelb, author of “Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy,” in a recent Daily Beast column. “That is when the explosions begin.”