by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ian Millhiser and Nate Carlile
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Key members of President Obama's national security team are in the Middle East this week to build regional support for the President's plan for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. After visiting Abu Dhabi and Damascus, special envoy George Mitchell held meetings in Israel where he made clear that "Obama's personal objective vision" was of a comprehensive peace that "includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the region." Mitchell next stops were Egypt and Bahrain. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, mainly to discuss issues pertaining to Iran's nuclear program, and afterward he flew to Jordan. National Security Adviser James Jones will lead "a multi-agency delegation of around 10 U.S. officials to Israel Wednesday for talks with their Israeli counterparts about Iran."
FROM DAY ONE: During the presidential campaign, Obama referred to the Arab-Israeli conflict as "a constant sore," suffering from friction that impacts American interests in the region. He promised to engage the issue early in his presidency and has made good on that pledge, assembling a knowledgeable team of diplomats and Middle East experts. In his June speech in Cairo, Obama stressed the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but also acknowledged the Palestinian narrative of dispossession. Underlining his belief that greater engagement is in both the U.S. and Israeli interest, Obama stated that "the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems." Foreign Policy's Laura Rozen reported that the President "sent letters to at least seven Arab and Gulf states seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel," even as the U.S. has requested that Israel build confidence by halting settlement growth in the occupied territories. Sources told Rozen that the President was disappointed with his June meeting with Saudi King Abdullah because he "got nothing out of it." On July 16, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, wrote in the Washington Post that Arab governments "must do more, now, to achieve peace. ... This crisis is not a zero-sum game. For one side to win, the other does not have to lose."
CONTINUING TENSION: Though Mitchell has recognized that "Israel has taken meaningful steps in the West Bank," an allusion to the dismantling of 25 checkpoints and allowing Palestinians greater freedom of movement in the occupied territories, tensions remain after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to meet the U.S. request that Israelis keep their commitment to freeze settlement growth. In June, the New York Times reported that the government has been using a series of procedures to place areas of Jerusalem under the control of settlers in order to strengthen the Israeli hold on parts of the city that Palestinians hope to make their capital. Last week, the Israeli government raised the stakes by announcing that it would move forward with the building of new Jewish homes in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, defying the Obama administration's specific request to halt the project. Additionally, Obama's approach has angered some Israelis. On July 23, "thousands of Jewish settlers and their right-wing allies in the Knesset gathered in front of the American consulate in Jerusalem" to demonstrate against Obama, but Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Barak, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that a settlement freeze "corresponds with our own legal obligations and...is calculated to save us from ourselves." Palestinian Authority President Abbas has said that peace negotiations with Israel won't be renewed "unless Israel clearly accepts the principle of the two-state solution and the complete freeze of settlement including the natural growth."
LIMITED TIME-FRAME: In his meeting with Barak, Gates said that "we're very mindful of the possibility that the Iranians would simply try to run out the clock." Downplaying disagreements between Israel and the U.S. over the Iranian nuclear program, Gates said, "I think we're in full agreement...on the negative consequences of Iran obtaining this kind of capability. ... I think we are also agreed that it is important to take every opportunity to try and persuade the Iranians to reconsider what is actually in their own security interest." Later in Amman, Jordan, Gates said "that if engagement with Iran did not work, the United States was prepared to press for tougher economic sanctions against it." Iran's continuing nuclear program, Israel's continuing construction of settlements in the occupied territories, and Palestinian and Arab hesitancy to fully re-engage in negotiations add up to a sense of urgency the Obama administration must contend with as it seeks to move the region toward a secure and lasting peace. Having recently returned from a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis wrote in his report that "the window of opportunity for achieving a viable two-state solution is rapidly closing." In addition to "a tightly focused strategic communications effort directed toward building support for a two-state solution among Palestinians and the broader Arab world," Katulis advocated better public diplomacy toward the Israeli public, writing that "Washington needs to reassure Israel that it will continue to support its security and work to maintain a close bilateral relationship while also pushing forcefully for a two-state solution which it sees as in the best interests of the region."