Obama Pressed To Get Mideast Peace Talks Moving

May 16, 2011

President Obama's speechwriters have been working on their latest message to the Arab and Muslim world. The administration has been struggling to come up with a consistent response to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The president also is under pressure from some quarters to do more to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as well.

All that will be on his agenda as he plays host this week to Jordan's King Abdullah and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Administration officials say Obama wants to talk this week about U.S. policy following the killing of Osama bin Laden and the uprisings in the Arab world.

Former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher says the president can't ignore one of the core issues: Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

"The U.S. will not be able to carry the argument to the Arab world that if they are Egyptians or Libyans working for or yearning for freedom, the U.S. is with them, but if they are Palestinians yearning for freedom it's complicated," Muashser says.

Certainly, there are complications for the administration. Its efforts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian deal collapsed almost immediately after they started last year, and special envoy George Mitchell resigned last week after failing to get the two sides talking again.

The Palestinians are working on plan B — taking their case to the United Nations, where they plan to seek recognition of an independent Palestine when the general assembly meets in September.

Muasher, who is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. can't wait around to see how things play out.

"A push for peace must be made now rather than waiting for a few years until the dust settles. I don't think events on the ground allow anyone to wait at any rate," Muasher adds.

He says that's the message Jordan's king Abdullah will likely to bring to the White House on Tuesday.

U.S. officials, though, are not raising any expectations that the president will lay out any serious initiative on Arab/Israeli peace just yet. They seem to be waiting to hear what Netanyahu has to say when he's in Washington for a meeting at the White House and speeches to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and to Congress.

Former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, of the Brookings Institution, says his advice to Obama is to put his arm around Netanyahu and explain:

"You can't stop something with nothing. If you don't like what's coming down the track in terms of United Nations actions, is going to isolate Israel, de-legitimize it, and declare it as an occupying power of a member state of the United Nations, you've got to come up with an initiative that the United States can get behind. And it's got to be a credible initiative."

If the Israelis want a Palestinian state, Indyk adds, they ought to spell out where it is going to be so the two sides can finally negotiate the deal.

But former Jordanian official Muasher, doubts anything Netanyahu will offer will move things forward and says Obama should be the one laying out a plan.

That's also the view of Jeremy Ben-Ami, who runs J Street an advocacy group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace.

"He doesn't need to dot every I or cross every T but he's got to lay out the key questions before the parties and ask them for yes or no questions to gauge their seriousness in order to assess out whose ready to move forward and who isn't," Ben-Ami adds.

Like Muasher, Ben-Ami argues the Obama administration has a limited time frame.

"If the United States wants to avoid a showdown at the U.N. in September, which most people agree will not be productive; then the president needs to act now," Ben-Ami says.

The president is to speak at the State Department on Thursday — a day before he hosts Netanyahu at the White House. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.