Obama Tiptoes Into The Israel-Palestine Crisis

As direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leadership commence, the Obama administration finds itself in perhaps the most delicate diplomatic position it has yet assumed on the international stage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set to participate in bilateral meetings at the White House on Wednesday. In advance of those talks, Obama has taken on a posture that experts say could result in anything from (not wholly unexpected) failure to the most fruitful set of such discussions to date.

The administration has insisted that getting the two parties to attend the first direct talks in more than 18 months is a major victory in its own right. The parameters of the negotiations are relatively undefined, however, and may be largely negotiable. Failed past talks may serve as a basis for a future agreement, but there is no set framework -- and the ambiguity is deliberate.

"What we've tried to do is to avoid a slavish adherence to the past while trying to learn what might have been improved in the past, what worked, what didn't work," Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Senator George Mitchell told reporters on Tuesday. "And so we have avoided deliberately any specific label or identification that this is a continuation of process A or B or C."

On certain topics -- chief among them Israeli settlements -- the administration's position remains clear. But while the White House may have pressed hard for the talks to resume, its current posture seems designed to compel reconciliation between the parties without assuming full ownership. The problem is that presidential intervention could be the only factor that makes a deal possible.

"To get an Israeli 'yes,' we will have to perform a C-section to get it out," said Daniel Levy, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force. "The only available surgeon is the American president, and it can only be extracted if Israelis are faced with real choices and decisions to make.

"I believe personally that there is a capacity in the Israeli system to ultimately deliver a 'yes' to real de-occupation, either by Bibi, or a different coalition," Levy added. "But the combination of the strength of the settlers and their supporters, Israeli political dysfunctionality, and the lack of consequences for the status quo mean that this political 'yes' will not be delivered on its own."

In his Wednesday briefing, Mitchell insisted that Obama not only was prepared to roll up his sleeves but had done so already. He noted that the first calls that the president made upon assuming office were to leaders in the region. The next day, Obama announced the appointment of Mitchell to oversee peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

"Please do not confuse personal engagement exclusively with public activities, because as you know, there's a lot that a president does that isn't in the public arena but that ... represents very active participation," said Mitchell.

Going forward, meanwhile, Mitchell did not rule out the possibility that Obama would step up his involvement in the talks, either in future meetings or gatherings at the U.N. General Assembly later this year. Indeed, on a private conference call with Jewish-interest groups last week -- which the Huffington Post managed to dial in to -- Dan Shapiro, a senior policy advisor and Jewish outreach coordinator for the President, told listeners that Obama would strongly weigh a visit to the region if negotiations looked fruitful.

"The President has said that he looks forward to an opportunity to visit [the region]," Shapiro said. "Opportunities to do that as these negotiations progress -- if we see progress and the opportunity to add to that -- could be very valuable and meaningful at the right time ..."

As Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Middle East advisor to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, told the Huffington Post: "You get bitten by this. You get a sense of the extraordinary importance and compelling character of these issues. You get hooked. And if Obama senses there is a deal here and you can deliver it, he will be all over this thing like a cheap suit."

That part of the negotiations, however, is a long way away -- and, ironically, could remain far off without the President stepping firmly into the middle of the talks.

Neither of the other heads of state is on strong footing going into the negotiations. Netanyahu's coalition could very well abandon him if he agrees to extend the soon-to-be-expired ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Abbas, meanwhile, lacks the formal support of any faction of his government heading into the negotiations.

"There is no Plan B. Obama is Plan B. Abbas has no back door anymore. He is going to try and make this work because he has no alternative," said Amjad Atallah, co-director of New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force.

Many of the key stakeholders won't even be at the table. Hamas, the democratically elected government in Gaza, is not and won't be invited. Neither is Syria or Saudi Arabia, each a major player in the Israel-Palestine crisis. Mitchell wouldn't even address the role that Iran might play in scuttling or helping the peace process.

Not every sign is discouraging. Public sentiment throughout the region appears to favor a two-state solution, Mitchell relayed. The West Bank has grown apart from Gaza in its receptiveness to closer political and economic relations with Israel. Notwithstanding Tuesday's attack by Hamas, which resulted in the death of four Israelis, terrorism has mostly been down heading into the talks. And while Abbas and Netanyahu are risking their governments, there is a thread of hope that signs of momentum will compel the critics to squelch their opposition.

Through it all, Obama and his team will be tiptoeing, cognizant that leadership will be needed to ensure negotiations progress but wary of getting too involved in a process memorable only for bad endings.

"There are enough people in the administration from the old days ... who understand that this is a long movie and you don't want to get yourself into a mission where you are the ones who are forced to save the process," said David Miller. "Because if that is the point of departure we will fail. Without them owning it first there is no way they can do this ... Once things look up, I think you will see a much more assertive Barack Obama."