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Israeli leader's upcoming U.S. trip loses steam

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to embark on a U.S. trip his aides once said would include a "historic" announcement designed to jump-start the Middle East peace process, there's a growing consensus that neither Israel nor Washington is ready to make any bold moves after all.

Some of the pressure Israel was facing from the U.S. and Europe has been at least temporarily lifted by the international unease over a May 4 reconciliation deal between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, officials and analysts say.

The plan to include Hamas — an Islamic militant group that refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce violence — as part of a Palestinian Authority unity government made many in the international community less certain about the immediate prospects for peace talks. Israel is threatening to boycott the new entity.

"In the short term, the reconciliation could be seen as a godsend for Netanyahu since it provided him with an excuse to offer nothing," said Shlomo Brom, a Mideast analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

In a speech Monday before Israel's Knesset, or parliament, that some saw as a preview of his planned May 24 address before the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu offered no new peace initiative and faulted Palestinians for the collapse of U.S.-mediated talks.

"We must stop beating ourselves up and blaming ourselves," Netanyahu said. "The reason there is no peace is that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people."

If Netanyahu had been planning to unveil any ideas or concessions in the U.S. next week, it's likely he would have floated them during Monday's speech.

"A bold move on Netanyahu's part is out of the question," said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist. "He is not going to put a peace plan on the table. It isn't realistic."

By the same token, the Obama administration has also shelved, for now, the idea of laying out any of its own prescriptions for restarting the peace talks.

After a long debate, the administration decided not to present any groundbreaking ideas in a speech on the Middle East that President Obama will make Thursday, officials said.

Officials concluded that the still-vague Palestinian reconciliation deal has created too much uncertainty about the way forward, although they leave open the possibility that the administration will still offer its ideas this summer.

The administration was deeply split on whether to offer an "Obama plan," with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, departing Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and some aides in the National Security Council arguing for it. The skeptics included White House Middle East advisor Dennis Ross and several other advisors, officials said.

One argument against a fresh U.S. peace plan was that such a move would be counterproductive unless the administration is prepared to risk another prolonged squabble with the Netanyahu government and his American supporters at a time when Obama is beginning his reelection campaign. If the administration gave up the fight, it would look weak, as it did last year when it abandoned its attempt to persuade Netanyahu to impose a full freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, some argued.

Instead, Obama will try to find a new harmony in his often tense relationship with Netanyahu and a better image with some of the Israeli leader's U.S. supporters.

In the aftermath of deadly border protests Sunday in which hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Syria and Lebanon tried to break across the Israeli frontier and came under fire by soldiers, the political debate is intensifying in Israel over whether Netanyahu should lay out a vision for creating a Palestinian state.

Pressure is also building because the Palestinian Authority is planning to seek U.N. recognition of statehood in September.

Netanyahu's critics argue that the border incident, which left 12 people dead and scores wounded, was another sign that Israel cannot detach the Palestinian conflict from its overall security in the region, where popular unrest and political instability in neighboring Arab countries are threatening to spill over into Israel.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Monday that Netanyahu's government, after two years in power, has failed to articulate a strategy for ending the conflict, and she warned that Israel could be facing more violence and international isolation.

"The time has come to determine Israel's borders, and this is something you cannot or will not do," Livni said in her Knesset response to Netanyahu. "The government is afraid to take the initiative, and our fate is being determined by others."

At one point during Netanyahu's speech, an opposition lawmaker heckled the prime minister, shouting: "Is this what he's going to say in the U.S.? He might as well not go!"

Netanyahu's conservative supporters have been lobbying hard against any new concessions, such as imposing a temporary freeze on building in West Bank settlements or embracing 1967 borders as a baseline for future talks.

Likud Party minister Benny Begin, a member of Netanyahu's seven-member inner Cabinet, scoffed at calls for "bold" initiatives, saying that's usually a code word for more Israeli concessions.

"Can you imagine making more concessions with Hamas now playing such a significant role?" he said of plans for a Palestinian unity government. "People keep saying they want us to surprise them on May 24, but that's not in the cards."

During a Likud meeting earlier Monday, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom warned Netanyahu that any dramatic concessions made in the U.S. could cause Israel's right-wing coalition government to fracture. "We'll lose the elections and disband should you stray from the Likud way," he told Netanyahu, according to a report on the Israeli news site Ynet.

Nonetheless, Brom predicted it was only a matter of time before international pressure on Israel resumed.

"In the longer term, it puts Netanyahu in a corner," Brom said. "He will say there's no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, but Americans … will say, and rightfully so, that the reconciliation agreement is partly the result of Netanyahu's own policy because he offered no alternative. And I am not sure he has an answer for that."

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now with the New America Foundation, predicted that U.S. officials would argue that Israel must find a way back to negotiations if the administration is to help it reduce international diplomatic pressure and deflect the Palestinians' effort to win U.N. recognition.

The administration will tell him privately that "he's going to have to give Obama something to work with if he wants America to help," Levy said.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

Sanders reported from Jerusalem and Richter from Washington. Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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