Past Presidents' Lessons Key In New Mideast Talks

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Every U.S. administration for the past two decades has tried its hand at Arab-Israeli Peace — some with more fanfare than others. Now, it's the Obama administration's turn, and there is a great deal of skepticism given the history of past attempts.

The settings have varied over the years: Madrid, Oslo, Wye River, Camp David and Annapolis.

There have been plenty of ups and downs: From President Carter's success in forging a peace deal between Israel and Egypt to Bill Clinton's disappointment over efforts to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Carter: "The treaty that emerges can be the cornerstone of a comprehensive settlement, one that can bless with peace all the people who have suffered from the long, enduring conflict in the Middle East."

Clinton: "Now the two parties must go home and reflect, both on what happened at Camp David and on what did not happen."

By the time President George W. Bush left office, there was still no deal and a lot of skepticism.

Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has been interviewing past U.S. negotiators, says there are always competing narratives of what went wrong. He says it will be key for the Obama administration to draw the right lessons and plan for difficult talks on the core issues: borders, security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

"In the two moments in the last 10 or 12 years when the U.S. has been in a negotiation where the big issues were being discussed, the core issues, we were caught flat footed. We didn't have carefully thought-out positions," Latensky says.

He adds that the Clinton administration had to scramble at the last minute, while the Bush administration was always leery of putting U.S. ideas on the table. He points out that this administration is at least starting its Middle East peace efforts earlier than its predecessors.

"The U.S. has set up a negotiation, where we've given the parties the timeline, where we've said the focus should be the core issues, and we know that they can't come up with agreements on their own," Latensky says. "They can't actually get to a final deal because every time they get close, there still are gaps. So we should have ideas, parameters, bridging proposals, what have you, ready."

Another lesson, he says, is to coordinate with the international community and bring in the Arab world.

Former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher says that was one of the problems that hurt Clinton's efforts to persuade Yasser Arafat to sign a deal in 2000.

"Arafat was asked to give some very painful compromises that he did not feel had Arab cover," Muasher says. "He did not want to sign an agreement and be called a traitor the next day."

The leaders of Egypt and Jordan — the only countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel — are in Washington for Wednesday night's dinner at the White House.

But Muasher, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. should do more to reach out to others in the Arab world. He also says the incremental approach to peace has run its course, and he blames that on Jewish settlement building on land that would be part of a future Palestinian state.

"It has been 17 years — the number of settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem has doubled since the Oslo agreement in '93," Muasher says. "There is this belief on the Arab side that any further settlement activity is just buying time for Israel to create more facts on the ground."

That issue already is threatening to scuttle the Obama administration's talks. Israel's partial moratorium on settlement building is set to expire later this month.

Another thing the U.S. will have to overcome, says Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations, is general peace-process fatigue.

"Both peoples really want it, but both peoples are skeptical that it can be achieved," Danin says. "They need hope, and their leaders aren't providing them that. And that's where I think the U.S. can play a very important role."

But Danin and others warn that there is a key element lacking: a sense of urgency from Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and a clear willingness to make needed compromises.



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