The Arab-Israeli breakthrough that Obama has been seeking since his first day in office will near the make-or-break point this week as his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If they can agree on terms for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, that would open the way for talks on creating a Palestinian state.But along the way, there’s politically draining haggling. How long would the settlement freeze last? And would it cover the estimated 700 construction projects already underway? Mitchell is hammering out compromise language, but it’s likely to leave both sides unhappy. And what about the Arab response? In exchange for the freeze, Obama expects reciprocal Arab moves toward normalization of relations. But that’s likely to be a modest list — a resumption of trade and diplomatic contacts and perhaps some concessions on Israeli overflights and landing rights. Nothing there to get Israelis very excited — or to ease anxiety about what many fear is Obama’s pro-Arab tilt.
The White House is debating whether Obama should launch his initiative with a declaration of U.S. “parameters” for a final settlement. The Arabs favor such a statement, as do many U.S. experts such as Brzezinski. But Mitchell is said to favor a more gradual approach, in which Israelis and Palestinians would begin negotiations and the United States would intervene later with “bridging” proposals.
A good compromise would be an Obama statement of U.S. “principles” for negotiations, rather than explicit parameters. But even that approach is likely to upset Netanyahu and Israel’s supporters in Congress. Will Obama have the political clout this fall to withstand their pressure as he pushes for a settlement? That’s where health-care reform and the peace process become intertwined.