While An Obama Priority, Mideast Peace Pace Slows

President Obama has said that one of his priorities is to help Israelis and Palestinians negotiate peace. But the U.S. has been unable to persuade Israel to stop settlement building in the West Bank, and Palestinians say without that they are not ready to talk. To get things started, U.S. officials may have to begin with lower-level negotiations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. From the start of his presidency, Barack Obama said one of his priorities was to help broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. has been unable, though, to persuade Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank. That matters for many reasons, one of them being that Palestinians say they are not ready to talk unless the settlements stop. So the Obama administration seems to be looking for other ways to get the two sides together, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As a former advisor to President Clinton on Middle East affairs, Robert Malley has been watching intensely to see if President Obama will try something new to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration started off with big ambitions to reignite the peace process, bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and, as Malley puts it, tame the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But he says the opposite has happened.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Program Director for Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group): The relationship with Israel got frostier, but Netanyahu they think(ph) has been emboldened. President Abbas has been - his legitimacy has been seriously undermined by a series of things that have happened over the last few weeks. Our credibility in the Arab world has suffered because of the strong position we took on a settlement freeze. We then had to walk back. And as for the peace process, it looks to be moving further and further from recovering by the day.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried on her just ended trip to persuade Abbas to return to talks, even though Israel fell short of agreeing to a settlement freeze. She spent days trying to explain to Arab leaders that she does think the Israelis are moving in the right direction on that issue, and she doesn't think a settlement freeze should be a precondition for talks.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): What President Obama tried to do was to say, look, this is such an irritant, it is such a terribly, you know, it's a terrible flash point for people in the region. And I was surprised that the Israelis went as far as they did. The Arabs and the Palestinians said it wasn't far enough. I understand both sides.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration had been hoping that full-scale Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would've started by now, but these days U.S. officials are talking more about baby steps, having lower level negotiators start talking first. One former Abbas advisor, Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, says Abbas has no other choice in the end.

Mr. GHAITH AL-OMARI (American Task Force on Palestine): If this is the most that can be achieved right now politically, so be it. Ultimately, I think the two sides have to start talking. And the sooner they start doing it, at whatever level they start doing it, the more they get locked into the process, the more they will get a sense of ownership of the process and a stake in the success of the process. I think negotiations create their own dynamics and can help us break this posturing that we have seen going on for the last nine months.

KELEMEN: But Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says getting the two sides in a room together may not be enough.

Mr. MALLEY: It is very hard, not just for me, I think for most observers, to imagine that Israelis and Palestinians sitting in a room could negotiate a comprehensive final status agreement. Given the gaps between the two sides, given the makeup of the Israeli government, given the decisions on the Palestinians side and given the state of the region, it's hard to see why today that could be achieved when under far better conditions in the past it wasn't achievable.

KELEMEN: In an article in the New York Review of Books, he and a co-author suggest that the Obama administration may have to help Israelis and Palestinians think of alternative solutions.

Mr. MALLEY: We've had now strategic reviews on Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea. There's good reason to pause and have that kind of strategic review of where it is we want to go exactly on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

KELEMEN: U.S. administrations have a long record of failure on the Middle East, he says, so perhaps it's time to be creative.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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