U.S. debates role in Mideast peace effort

The Obama administration’s abandonment of a failed strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has sparked a debate within the White House about what kind of approach — and how much energy — America’s overbooked national security team should put into the Middle East effort.

The focus of that debate sharpened Thursday as top officials jockeyed to shape a highly anticipated policy speech that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will make Friday night.

Some officials say her speech should be ringing but largely devoid of details. Others contend that she should demonstrate how the issue remains a top priority by specifying in more detail what the U.S. expects to see in a final peace deal, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the pro- Israel lobby group J Street, said the debate about the speech was “a proxy for the fundamental question they are facing: How hard are they going to push for peace?”


The administration, in a dramatic shift, announced Tuesday that it was dropping its bid to persuade the Israeli government to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in disputed areas for 90 days. The push had been intended to buy time to allow the two sides to sketch an outline of a peace deal.

Palestinian officials have insisted they won’t hold talks with the Israelis unless settlements in areas occupied in 1967 are frozen. Tuesday’s announcement left the administration looking for another way to bring the parties back to the table.

U.S. officials publicly described the move as only a tactical shift and said they intended to continue the discussions separately with Israelis and Palestinians, in hopes of eventually rekindling the direct talks.

But people familiar with White House maneuvering said the internal debate is far-reaching and fundamental. They said the administration is reaching out not only to Israelis and Palestinians but to foreign leaders and others knowledgeable about the issue to elicit ideas about readjusting its approach.

Officials gave varying accounts of whether the administration was still aiming to complete the basics of a peace deal within one year, a goal it set in September. Although the State Department has officially said meeting that deadline remains the goal, others suggest that the timing is fading in importance.

Even before this week’s announcement, veteran analysts were wondering whether President Obama would continue spending as much political capital on the peace effort, which has alienated many Israelis and their American supporters without winning him much credit in the Arab world.

U.S. officials say the administration remains fully committed, and most veteran analysts also believe that he is not about to pull back.

“I don’t think the statement this week is the precursor to putting this in the ‘benign neglect folder,’” said David Makovsky, a Middle East expert who co-wrote a book, “Myths, Illusions and Peace,” with one of the administration’s top peace advisors, Dennis B. Ross. “The administration is pretty committed to this issue.”


Clinton opened a new round of discussions Thursday with Israeli chief negotiator Isaac Molho after talking to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas twice on Wednesday. She is to meet with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Friday morning.

Abbas, in Cairo on Thursday, categorically ruled out negotiations “as long as settlements continue.”

U.S. officials believe that they can still conduct “parallel” talks with Israelis and Palestinians, although the Palestinians are likely to deny that this constitutes indirect talks with Israel.