Hopes for Mideast peace hit low

  • Article by: JODI RUDOREN , New York Times
  • Updated: February 9, 2013 - 11:57 PM

Israelis and Palestinians see little chance for the stalemated peace process to restart with Obama's visit.

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FILE - In this July 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walk to Netanyahu's car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. After a long and chilly four years, Barack Obama hopes to reset his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his first trip to Israel as president this spring. And it could be a step toward reopening a pathway toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, although Obama is carrying no big new Mideast peace plan

Photo: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

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JERUSALEM - For more than two years, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders have placed blame for their stalemated peace process not only on one another but on a lack of engagement by the Obama administration. But now that President Obama and his new secretary of state have signaled plans to visit, both sides remain skeptical that much will change.

At best, experts say, there may be movement on the margins. The United States is expected to soon release $200 million to the financially ailing Palestinian Authority, aid that it has withheld for months. There is talk of giving the Palestinians partial control over some areas of the West Bank where Israel currently rules. Israel may release some longstanding Palestinian prisoners as a gesture.

Also, some Israelis and Americans are pushing the idea of at least a partial freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for a promise by the Palestinians to postpone plans to use their new upgraded status at the United Nations to pursue claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

"What's possibly new is not to simply focus on getting to negotiations, because that's too limited," said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who edited a recent book on the situation. "We have to be able to do four or five things relatively simultaneously, so that no one can say we've prejudiced this peace process against them. It's like a smorgasbord. You find a little bit that's of value to you and there are some things you don't like, but the whole table is something that's accepted."

Few expect Obama's visit, scheduled for March 20, to yield a summit meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Even a return to the negotiating table feels far off, according to analysts and people inside each government.

"In the end, it's a question of whether the two leaders are serious about actually achieving an agreement, or whether they want to maneuver to blame the other for lack of progress," said Martin Indyk, another former ambassador to Israel and now the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "Is it a blame game or a peace game?"

The president, who visited Israel as a candidate in 2008, plans to stay two days in Jerusalem. Besides meetings, he is expected to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and to give a speech either in parliament or at a university.

Obama will most likely spend a few hours in the West Bank, sitting with Abbas and perhaps touring with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

While officials in Jerusalem and Washington have been discussing details for weeks, one senior Palestinian official said the leadership in the West Bank learned about the president's trip from news reports, which only deepened suspicions of the U.S. role.

"Coming is not enough," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Abbas. "We wait to see what he is carrying."

The Americans' visits come at a time of weakness and limbo for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. After a poor showing in last month's elections, Netanyahu is struggling to form a broad governing coalition.

Abbas is hamstrung by a financial crisis, internal political divisions and his own increasing isolation as a secular moderate in an Arab world where rising Islamist leaders are consumed by domestic concerns.

"There is next to zero chance that these two people are going to come to a final-status agreement," said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

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