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September deadlines loom for Israel as Peres and Obama meet

Israeli President Shimon Peres visits the White House Tuesday with two September deadlines bearing down on Israel – one from the Palestinians and one set by President Obama himself.
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Israeli President Shimon Peres visits the White House Tuesday with two September deadlines bearing down on Israel – one from the Palestinians and one set by President Obama himself.

When Mr. Obama relaunched Middle East peace talks last September, he set a goal of reaching some kind of agreement within a year. The administration has never said the president has relinquished that goal, even as the unforeseen “Arab spring” has roiled the region.

But perhaps the bigger problem for Israel is a Palestinian plan, born of frustration over a moribund peace process, to leapfrog the model of incremental progress toward Palestinian statehood by simply having a Palestinian state declared at September’s gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Today Israel occupies Palestinian “territories,” but the nightmare for Israel is that it would suddenly find itself occupying an independent member of the United Nations, and an Arab one at that. One need only recall how the world looked upon Saddam Hussein’s occupation of an independent Kuwait to understand the alarm bells some Israeli politicians are sounding.

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US quiet on statehood option

The Obama administration has said in the past that it rejects as unhelpful any unilateral actions by either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but so far the administration has been quiet on how it would approach a declaration of Palestinian statehood.

White House officials say Obama will discuss regional security and the Mideast turmoil with Mr. Peres, as well as ideas for getting the peace process moving again. But the challenges waiting in September are also a certain, if uncomfortable, agenda item.

“If you are a recognized state and you are occupied, you have a right to fight,” says Amjad Atallah, director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Still, many regional analysts, including Mr. Atallah, say international recognition of Palestine as an independent state is not likely to suddenly resolve the conflict. “So you have 100 or 120 countries voting to recognize Palestine” and admit it as a member of the UN General Assembly, Atallah says. “The question becomes, what then?”

The answer may be that the Palestinians would only be setting back their own cause with something that sounds good but accomplishes little, others say.

“If the Palestinians do go ahead and seek to do an end run around Israel by getting statehood through the UN, that would set back the chances for negotiations while not guaranteeing they would ever actually get a state,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “It would make the situation that much more complicated without offering any real benefit.”

Obama’s reelection bid

The stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians, coupled with the improved US image in the region as a result of the “Arab spring,” might normally present the US with a “golden opportunity” to take a bold diplomatic step, Atallah says. Yet all the problematic issues that are announcing themselves for September like a gathering storm don’t appear to be motivating the Obama administration to action, he adds, with the explanation likely to be found in the president’s reelection bid announced Monday.

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“This should be an opportunity for the US to act,” Atallah says, “but conventional wisdom dictates that a president during a reelection campaign is particularly hamstrung when it comes to pressuring Israel for movement toward a solution.”

The turmoil in the region – and in particular in Egypt – only adds to the hurdles to reaching an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, says Mr. Phillips. But he says Obama’s peace initiative was ill-advised well before the first hint of trouble in Tunisia. “The fact is the conditions were not ripe for it, and neither of the parties, the Israelis or the Palestinians, really wants it,” he says.

That leaves the question of Obama’s goal for some kind of agreement by September.

“It was an unrealistic goal from the beginning,” Phillips says, “and now I think it’s going to be added to the pile of this president’s unmet promises,” he says. “If you add Israeli-Palestinian peace to engagement with Iran and Syria, it’s a pretty big pile.”