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Obama's Next Middle East Challenge

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With the dust having settled following President Obama's New York meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a sober assessment of what actually happened, and what may happen next, is in order.

In the days following the bilateral meetings, the trilateral session and President Obama's speech to the General Assembly, reactions were predictable. The Israeli side, taking their cue from Netanyahu, crowed, while much of the Arab media both criticized Obama for "caving in" in the face of Israeli intransigence, and decried the humiliation of Abbas -- who was seen as having been abandoned by the U.S. on the critical issue of settlements.

In the U.S., reactions varied, ranging from supporters of the White House who keyed in on Obama's "impatience" and "sense of urgency", to critics who termed the president's performance weak and indecisive.

Several observations must be made:

- The notion that Netanyahu won and Abbas lost may be right, but only because this was a widely shared perception which will, no doubt, have political consequences, at least in the short term. The hard-line right in Israel feels emboldened, as is evidenced by some of Netanyahu's own comments and the provocative behavior of some of his supporters. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority's hard-line opponents have also felt emboldened, stepping up their criticism of Abbas' leadership.

- The claim that Obama "blinked" because Israel refused to accept a settlement freeze, thereby frustrating the president's efforts to elicit parallel confidence-building gestures from the Arab states, creating the positive environment that would have "kick started" negotiations, may also be true. But only to a degree. It can also be argued that the United States president was attempting to make the best of a bad situation by pressing forward with his three-way meeting in which he expressed his impatience and declared his determination to move forward to permanent status negotiations. How much worse would it have been, one might reasonably ask, had the president done nothing and appeared to be surrendering to a troubled impasse.

- In this context, it is important to recall that in his public and private remarks Obama made clear his intention not just to move to "negotiations without preconditions" (which is what Netanyahu may have wanted), but to move to negotiations that would address "all outstanding issues" and be based on "the historical record of past negotiations" dealing with "permanent status issues: security, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem" (which is what Netanyahu clearly did not want). And, Obama did not forsake his position that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements".

- This said, it appears that while Netanyahu can boast of emerging as "victor" from this round, it may be both short lived and "hollow". The negotiations he sought were to have been limited to security cooperation and economic peace. This is not what he will get. Instead, it was Obama who laid down firm markers for the content and direction of the next round.

- The president's "impatience" and "sense of urgency" should also be noted, for two reasons. Time is not on the side of peacemaking. As long as Israel drags its feet and continues to establish "facts on the ground", a peace agreement becomes more difficult to achieve. And, given the continuing dangers posed by other regional concerns, delay makes moving toward a resolution of the conflict more necessary, and at the same time, more complicated.

Because, as Obama continues to assert, a comprehensive regional peace is not just an Israeli and Arab concern, but a matter of U.S. national security interests, he insists that he is redoubling his efforts to push his team to get negotiations underway in the coming weeks.

For now, Mitchell will continue with U.S.-Israel and U.S.-Palestinian bilateral talks. As the president made clear, these intensive consultations will continue for but a short time. By mid-October, Mitchell is to report to Secretary of State Clinton, who, in turn will give a progress report to the president. Should the impasse remain, and that is the likely scenario, many believe that Obama will need to step forward making a long-awaited intervention -- laying out a plan of his own. It is at this point that the mettle of the Obama administration will truly be tested.

The bottom line to all of this is that, as unsettling and confusing as the New York events may have been, they are but a step in a longer process, setting the stage for a more substantial challenge and, possibly, another showdown in the weeks ahead, where another setback will not be an option.