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Israel-Palestine Plate Heating Up

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Helene Cooper of the New York Times has published a great what's up story on the new behind the scenes scramble by the Obama administration, Prime Minister Netanyahu and various Palestinian officials to act as if they have some plan to move the peace process forward -- when in fact, most of it is insincere posturing and speechifying designed to pour concrete on what has thus far been failure.

Brookings' Martin Indyk is quoted calling out all this public flapping in the Cooper piece:

"Instead of focusing on peace-making, everybody seems to be focused on speech-making," said Martin S. Indyk, vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a former United States ambassador to Israel. "And unless the speeches generate peace negotiations, making speeches will not generate peace."

But the reality is that the president of the United States knows that he can't "do nothing" on Israel/Palestine. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warned in her powerful comments today at the United Nations, violence is heating up. She accused Hamas and others of targeting innocent civilians -- and called for calm. But there is little likelihood that the component pieces of the Israel-Palestine puzzle will willingly accept the status quo, particularly one in which Israel keeps expanding its settlements in Occupied territories.

Daniel Levy, my colleague who directs the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force, also said to Cooper, Netanyahu and Obama are both in competition to control the frame surrounding Israel/Palestine issues -- they feel the need to rush forward, but neither seems willing to do what needs to be done to achieve real negotiations and a fundamental breakthrough.

Cooper reports from Daniel Levy:

"People seem to think that whoever goes first gets the upper hand," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and a director at the New America Foundation. Using Mr. Netanyahu's nickname, he said: "If Bibi went first and didn't lay out a bold peace plan, it would be harder for Obama to say, actually, despite what you said to Congress and their applause, this is what I think you should do."

The political gamesmanship between the two men illustrates how the calculation in the Middle East has changed for a variety of reasons, including the political upheaval in the Arab world. But it also shows the lack of trust and what some officials say is personal animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice at a Security Council debate this morning reiterated that the U.S. remained committed to a two-state solution, did not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, and said that it is in the interest of both parties in the conflict and the world to negotiate. Rice outlined America's support for the efforts of the Palestinian government, and the unmentioned Salam Fayyad, to lay the foundations for a future Palestinian state -- building public institutions, enhancing their capacity and laying the groundwork for quality economic growth.

She condemned the death of innocent civilians recently and the escalation of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.

But this speech by Rice, while important, falls short of a plan.

What is missing is President Obama's vision for what needs to be done to achieve a stable equilibrium between Palestine and Israel -- not full details, but at least an outline of expectations and goals.

Obama seems unwilling to make his own weather in the Middle East, and his team and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to cling to the bizarre notion that, after so many examples when both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have failed to mature and act responsibly about their long-term mutual interests, they would all of a sudden begin to do so. Israel's short-term interests and long-term interests are different -- and thus in the short term, with a party that Israel fundamentally does not trust, it is hard for Israel to make the jump to do a deal that secures its long-term survival and interests in the region.

Israel's government, even under Netanyahu, probably doesn't have the legs to do a real peace deal at this point -- and the Palestinian Authority is in the same boat, though with more leaky holes springing water and sinking.

What will move the process forward is American and Quartet leadership that doesn't make the conflict one just between these two parties. Their failure has become globally consequential and reinforces an impression of American foreign policy impotence.

It's important for the president of the United States to kick forward a serious plan laying out his expectations -- and then a subsequent plan embraced by regional and global stakeholders to actualize it.

Otherwise, Indyk is completely right that what we are hearing from all quarters are meaningless speeches achieving nothing.

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons