U.S.-Israeli Relations Ease, But Peace Process Stalls

President Obama started the year promising a big push to promote Arab-Israeli peace, but his administration ends the year, as one U.S. official recently put it, in a cul-de-sac. The U.S. has been unable to get Israeli-Palestinian talks started, and many Arab states have been frustrated.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington, says he felt he knew a lot about the U.S.-Israel relationship when he came to the job. As a historian who has taught at Yale and Harvard, Oren spent decades writing about this relationship.

"What I had learned as a researcher, as a historian, was, in fact, very little," Oren says. "You learn a lot more about the relationship once you sit behind this desk in the ambassador's office.

"You find that the relationship is much more multilayered and stronger than anything I anticipated."

'We Are Afraid'

That discovery has helped Oren get through some turbulent times this year. Many Israelis were initially worried about Obama, particularly his policy on Iran.

"The Obama administration came into office with an express policy of outreach, engaging the Iranian regime without any preconditions," Oren says. "Our policy was: We are afraid."

Now that the U.S. is leaning toward tougher sanctions on Iran, Oren sounds more at ease with the Obama administration's approach.

The other major source of tension was Obama's early commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, an issue he brought up on his first full day in office when he named George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. The president called on Arab states to make positive gestures toward Israel, and he called on Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

By May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear there should be no exceptions to that, even for what the Israelis call natural growth, adding extra rooms or schools to meet the needs of a growing population.

But Oren said no Israeli government could agree to that.

"We came back and said that is politically and physically impossible," he says.

For Israel, Dispute Is Over

What Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed instead was a 10-month, partial freeze of settlement activity — a moratorium that does not include East Jerusalem. Clinton stopped talking about a full settlement freeze and called the Israeli decision unprecedented. Oren says that, for Israel, this dispute is over.

"The settlement issue as a potential source of friction — if not something bigger than friction — in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has largely been neutralized by the moratorium," he says.

Palestinians Dissatisfied

But Maen Areikat, the diplomat who represents Palestinians in Washington, says he doesn't think the Obama administration is or should be satisfied with the partial settlement freeze.

"This partial agreement was a joke to start with," says Areikat. "There are already reports in the press that 10,000 settlers will be moving to Israeli settlements in the year 2010.

"You know, any moratorium that does not include a total cessation of settlement activity, including in Jerusalem, is not a meaningful moratorium."

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem in its entirety.

Areikat says he hasn't given up on the Obama administration, though this has been a year of ups and downs.

"Our expectations were higher following the landmark speech of President Obama in Cairo in June, and our expectations were higher when the administration took a very tough and firm stand vis-a-vis Israeli settlement activities," he says. "But at the same time, we are not going to completely discard the fact that this administration made it clear that it is in U.S. national interests to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel."

Areikat is encouraging the U.S. to come up with, as he puts it, the terms of reference for negotiations — to define the endgame and lay out a time frame. Only under those circumstances, he said, would the Palestinians be able to return to the negotiating table.

Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy, is expected to travel back to the region early next year.

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