Obama desperately needs new Mideast approach: experts

WASHINGTON, Christophe Schmidt - The Obama administration desperately needs a new approach to the Middle East as it slips further away than ever to securing peace after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tour, experts said Thursday.
The administration, they said, has lost face with both sides after Clinton praised Israel's promise of restraint on settlements before trying later to smooth Palestinian concerns that Washington still wanted a full stop to them.

"The current policy has neither the respect of the Israelis, nor of the Palestinians," according to Amjad Atallah, an expert with the New America Foundation, a think tank.
The chief US diplomat traveled to the Middle East from Saturday through Wednesday, meeting with the Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaderships.
She took the risk of disappointing the Palestinians by supporting, at the start of her tour, an offer by Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a partial freeze of new settlements in the West Bank.
In a bid to ease Arab concerns, Clinton insisted that President Barack Obama's administration is continuing, like the Palestinians, to call for a total freeze in settlement building.
"It was a huge mistake to put the issue of settlements on the table since they (the Obama team) were not prepared to go all the way," according to Marina Ottaway, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"For the Arabs, it's a victory for Israel, it's back to the usual," said Ottaway.
The Palestinians perceive settlements as a major threat to their goal of a future state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Clinton and her aides, aware of the deadlock in efforts to restart negotiations, "could have taken an audit" and tried to see "what can be done to reverse the negative trends," analyst Amjad Atallah said.
"Instead they used the trip to try to" force the Palestinians, "the weaker party, to the negotiations," said Atallah, a former legal advisor for the Palestinians who is now an expert with the New America Foundation.
"The irony is that they made the Palestinians so weak that they couldn't be dragged to the negotiations," he added.
The Palestinians had to stick by demands for a settlement freeze as a condition for talks, otherwise it would "look like the Palestinians were demanding less than what the Americans wanted," said Patrick Clawson.
"The Obama administration position was a very high risk position and it didn't work," said Clawson, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The dilemma for the United States was underscored Thursday when Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, voicing frustration with the US position, said he would not seek re-election in January.
Speaking to reporters here Thursday, Clinton appeared to accept Abbas's decision at face value, saying she hoped to work with him in "any new capacity."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said meanwhile that Abbas has been a "true partner" of the United States, but refused to be drawn on the implications of the decision for Obama's attempts to foster peace.
After peace talks were revived by president George W. Bush in November 2007, they were suspended when Israel launched a war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in December and January.
In insisting that talks proceed without a total settlement freeze, Clinton argues that the absence of a peace process plays in favor of the extremists. She also describes the US role as one of a facilitator.
But analysts said the new administration must take the time to develop a new strategy and admit the parties will not be able to make peace without Washington's direct involvement.
"We need a fundamentally different approach, and it will be not resolved by the Palestinians and Israelis themselves," Atallah said. "Both sides are subsidized by the US. The US are not a facilitator there, they're an actor and they have to accept it."

Thursday, November 5th 2009
Christophe Schmidt

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