WASHINGTON ~ The Obama administration needs a radical new approach to its bid to unlock the stalled Middle East peace process, including possibly just walking away, observers say.
Ten months into his administration, President Barack Obama has so far failed to coax the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations despite intensive diplomatic efforts on one of his top foreign policy priorities.
The yawning lack of success became all the more evident during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip last week when Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas refused to return to the talks without an Israeli freeze on settlements.
Clinton in turn seemed to signal a change in US policy on the settlement issue by appearing to accept a partial freeze. She has corrected her words, but Arab suspicions linger.
Abbas has now said he will not stand for re-election and is pondering resignation because the stalled US-led peace efforts have failed to create a Palestinian state.
Should Abbas go, experts fear that that could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, dramatically changing the dynamics on the ground.
“It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no US administration has ever dared to do: take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-US” sign and just go home,” wrote respected New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman at the weekend.
He argued the US should withdraw from “this dysfunctional peace process” until the two parties felt they needed Washington’s intervention.
“The fact is, the only time America has been able to advance peace … has been when the parties felt enough pain for different reasons that they invited our diplomacy.
“We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us.”
Such an option would only really give everyone some breathing space, said Middle East expert Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggesting the administration probably has three options.
“One is to have the president even more directly engaged to make a more obvious personal effort,” he said.
“Another is to put forward an American peace plan, what the Americans think the final outcome should look like and try to change the game that way.
“Third is find some way to redefine this, so people aren’t looking for the president to move it forward, walk away in some way. It would be playing for time.”
But Alterman acknowledged: “None of these is very good, because the situation on the ground is not standing still. The Palestinian side is melting away, and it reinforces the Israeli thinking that now is not the good time to move.”
Amid the tensions, Obama held closed-door talks late Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the talks were accompanied by none of the pomp and ceremony usually accorded to the key US ally.
There was no press conference, no public handshake between the two men, and only a brief White House statement.
“What I can say is that the administration’s commitment and determination are undiminished and that we will continue to work hard to bring about the early resumption of negotiations, which is the only track towards a two-state solution,” senior State Department official William Burns said on Tuesday.
Palestinian frustration is not surprising given they “had placed such high hopes” in Obama, said analyst Robert Malley from the International Crisis Group.
“What is of concern is not so much the failure to reach the goals … but that they (the administration) set the goals in the first place without a plan to address the situation if they weren’t able to achieve them.”
Former US ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter agreed the US administration needed to make a tactical “shift away from the settlement issue.”
“You have to work on all the other things that do not depend on success in Arab-Israeli peacemaking,” he said, highlighting such issues as improving aid to the Gaza Strip to break the grip of the ruling Hamas militants.
As Obama grapples with problem of how to kickstart the talks, one expert warned against hubris.
“The fundamental problem with Obama’s policy: like too many of his predecessors he believes that a solution is at hand if only he can force the parties to the table,” warned Council of Foreign Relations expert Elliott Abrams, in the conservative Weekly Standard.