At the U.N., Obama's risky bet on the Middle East
UNITED NATIONS--President Obama's passionate plea before the U.N. General Assembly on behalf of Middle East peace may have been a risky bet.
The president's statement was unusual both for its length and for the evident emotion he gave in his delivery. He urged the parties to "answer the call of history," he pushed Arab states to match "pledges with deeds," and he pushed backed against pessimism and ennui.
"We can say that this time will be different -- that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way," Obama declared.
But Obama's push also came as top officials of his administration have been closeted all week with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in New York, seeking a way out of an impasse that could bring nascent peace talks to a halt next week.
"Our team's here, the Israeli team's here, the Palestinians' team's here," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Thursday. "Our folks are in constant contact and trying to see if we can't find a way to keep the parties in the process and moving forward."
By all accounts, the United States has not yet found the magic formula to keep the talks going. Palestinian officials have said they will quit the talks if Israel lifts a partial moratorium on settlement expansion due to expire next week; the Israeli government says it will not be extended. (Obama said in his speech that the United States would like to see the moratorium extended, but officials have also floated various compromise proposals, such as briefly extending the freeze or limiting areas where permits would be granted.)
The moratorium officially ends on Sunday, but there appears to be a bit of wiggle room since it took four days to implement the military orders. That is why some news accounts say it ends on Sept. 26, while others say Sept. 30.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suggested at a dinner with Jewish leaders on Tuesday night that he would like to keep the talks going, but his statement was vague enough to leave unclear whether he would accept a compromise deal. (His statement: "I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it's very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his [settlement] activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem.")
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is under heavy pressure from right-leaning members of his coalition to lift the freeze immediately.
Both men thus might want to negotiate but neither one wants to look weak to constituents. In the Palestinian territories, Abbas is already perceived as having caved to American pressure to agree to start negotiations without an extension of the moratorium already in place.
The risk for Obama: If the talks collapse, and cannot be resumed, his words will seem awfully hollow a year from now. Middle East experts recall that at last year's U.N. session, Obama brought Netanyahu and Abbas together and demanded that they start negotiating immediately. But it took 11 months before direct negotiations ever began.
If a crisis is averted, and the talks succeed, however, Obama's words will be in the history books, not the dustpan of history.
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