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MIDDLE EAST: What can Obama do to restore confidence in peace process?

March 11, 2010 |  8:56 am


Voices of skepticism and disdain abound when it comes to United States' efforts to promote peace in the Middle East. Many in the Arab world regard the Obama administration's steps to restart talks as too little too late by a government too beholden to Israel. 

But some also proposed ideas for moving forward, even after Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where peace was overshadowed by Israel's announcement of plans to expand settlements in the West Bank.

“They shouldn’t allow Israel or a part of the Israeli government to sabotage this baby step,” said Paul Salem, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Most described Israel’s controversial announcement to expand West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements as underscoring what they consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contempt for the peace process, analysts said. 

“They see the visit as a humiliating experience for the Obama administration and Biden himself,” said Oussama Safa of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a Beirut think tank. “They see it as a deliberate and calculated move to add insult to injury to send the message that [Israelis] are the ones pulling the strings.”

Television news broadcasts showed footage of Biden and Netanyahu greeting each other warmly in front of Israeli and American flags as newscasters described Israel’s decision to expand settlements considered illegal by much of the world. 

Generally the initial Middle East euphoria that greeted the election of Obama has dissipated as his administration’s position has moved from demanding Israel halt settlements to asking Israelis and Palestinians to participate in murky proximity talks. 

“They feel the U.S. administration is not putting pressure on Israel,” Salem said.

He said the U.S. should move forward with its proximity talks despite what he described as this week's “fiasco," which may have been meant at damaging the Democratic president at a time when he’s vulnerable back home. 

He suggested the U.S. also try to revive indirect talks between Syria and Israel and work toward a removal of the siege on the Gaza Strip.

If Obama wanted to bolster the credibility of negotiations, he himself could issue a clear and unambiguous condemnation of settlement activity, produce a precise road map for the proximity talks and bring European nations into the process, Safa said. 

“This will create an international consensus against the settlements and support the proximity talks, and in a way kind of put pressure on Israel to freeze the settlements,” he said. 

Anything short will boost the power and credibility of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which argue that peace is not possible with the Jewish state. 

“Failure in peace talks will strengthen the radicals in the region, and vindicate them," Safa said.

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Sholmo on March 11. Credit: Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images