The Obama administration is trying to head off a Palestinian effort to seek recognition at the United Nations — the U.S. would rather see a negotiated settlement.
Last year, talks that the Obama administration launched came to a grinding halt over the issue of Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank. The Palestinians' Plan B is to look to the United Nations for help.
Israelis are increasingly nervous about their diplomatic isolation. And the whole region is consumed by uprisings. It is against this backdrop that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the president will speak about the Middle East soon.
"The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months," Clinton said.
She was supposed to have attended a meeting of the Middle East Quartet, but didn't like the European attempt to use such talks to spell out parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Clinton told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum that the U.S. should be in the lead.
"There is no substitute for continued active American leadership," she said. "And the president and I are committed to that."
The administration doesn't like the idea of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas taking his case to the U.N. General Assembly this September. Nor does the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who addressed the same forum as Clinton did Tuesday.
"President Abbas is making a mistake. I think he is banking on the vote in September. I think he's running around the world, building strength for that," he said.
And U.S. officials argue that this won't resolve the problems on the ground. Still, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says the administration should understand why Abbas is doing this.
"This is a Palestinian strategy that's born of desperation. It's for lack of any other option, and fear that given the lack of any other option, he will be viewed increasingly as having no sway or say in what the Palestinian future is," he said.
Malley says what the Obama administration is considering is a way to pre-empt that U.N. vote — by having President Obama speak about his vision of a two-state solution.
"They are trying to find something that would absorb the energy that is now focusing around this notion of recognizing a Palestinian state and being able to get Europeans, Arabs and others to see that as the best vehicle in a very stagnant, very paralyzed peace process, if that's the name it even deserves at this point," Malley said.
The timing of a presidential speech is still under debate, Malley says, with some arguing that Obama should spell out his views before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits this spring. That's what Sen. Kerry is expecting as well. He met Netanyahu recently to talk about the changes in the region and what that all means for the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace.
"Look, he's well aware of this dynamic, I think he is, as all Israelis are, and understandably sort of wondering who are we dealing with?" Kerry said. "Who are we dealing with in Egypt? Are we going to have the same kind of stability to the peace relationship? Who are we dealing with in Syria? What's going to be happening there? There's an uncertainty in the air."
But speaking alongside Kerry, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said the U.S. can't wait on Israelis or Palestinians in this sort of environment.
"Simply orating about a peace and then telling Abbas to lay off or telling Netanyahu to make a good speech for peace is not a solution," he said. "We have to step forward, and if we don't step forward, we have to face the fact that our influence, our presence in the region is historically declining and is going to accelerate."
He is advocating for Obama to be specific about what sort of deal the U.S. would support. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.