By David Ignatius
Despite recent turbulence in U.S. relations with Israel, President Obama is “seriously considering” proposing an American peace plan to resolve the Palestinian conflict, according to two top administration officials.
“Everyone knows the basic outlines of a peace deal,” said one of the senior officials, citing the agreement that was nearly reached at Camp David in 2000 and in subsequent negotiations. He said that an American plan, if launched, would build upon past progress on such issues as borders, the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. The second senior official said that “90 percent of the map would look the same” as what has been agreed in previous bargaining.
The American peace plan would be linked with the issue of confronting Iran, which is Israel’s top priority, explained the second senior official. He described the issues as two halves of a single strategic problem: “We want to get the debate away from settlements and East Jerusalem and take it to a 30,000-feet level that can involve Jordan, Syria and other countries in the region,” as well as the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Incrementalism hasn’t worked,” continued the second official, explaining that the United States cannot allow the Palestinian problem to keep festering — providing fodder for Iran and other extremists. “As a global power with global responsibilities, we have to do something.” He said the plan would “take on the absolute requirements of Israeli security and the requirements of Palestinian sovereignty in a way that makes sense.”
The White House is considering detailed interagency talks to frame the strategy and form a political consensus for it. The second official likened the process to the review that produced Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said the administration could formally launch the Middle East initiative by this fall.
White House interest in proposing a peace plan has been growing in recent months, but it accelerated after the blow-up that followed the March 9 Israeli announcement, during Vice President Biden’s visit, that Israel would build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. U.S. officials began searching for bolder ways to address Israeli and Palestinian concerns, rather than continuing the same stale debates.
Obama’s attention was focused by a March 24 meeting at the White House with six former national security advisers. The group has been meeting privately every few months at the request of Gen. Jim Jones, who currently holds the job. In the session two weeks ago, the group had been talking about global issues for perhaps an hour when Obama walked in and asked what was on people’s minds.
Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, spoke up first, according to a senior administration official. He urged Obama to launch a peace initiative based on past areas of agreement; he was followed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for Jimmy Carter, who described some of the strategic parameters of such a plan.
Support for a new approach was also said to have been expressed by Sandy Berger and Colin Powell, who served as national security advisers for presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, respectively. The consensus view was apparently shared by the other two attendees, Frank Carlucci and Robert C. McFarlane from the Reagan years.
Obama’s embrace of a peace plan would reverse the administration’s initial strategy, which was to try to coax concessions from the Israelis and Palestinians, with the United States offering “bridging proposals” later. This step-by-step process was favored by George Mitchell, the president’s special representative for the Middle East, who believed a similar approach had laid the groundwork for his breakthrough in Northern Ireland peace talks.
The fact that Obama is weighing the peace plan marks his growing confidence in Jones, who has been considering this approach for the past year. But the real strategist in chief is Obama himself. If he decides to launch a peace plan, it would mark a return to the ambitious themes the president sounded in his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
A political battle royal is likely to begin soon, with Israeli officials and their supporters in the United States protesting what they fear would be an American attempt to impose a settlement and arguing to focus instead on Iran. The White House rejoinder is expressed this way by one of the senior officials: “It’s not either Iran or the Middle East peace process. You have to do both.”