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Making nice, seeking peace, and treading water
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Making nice, seeking peace, and treading water

Finally, there’s a Middle East peace process underway, and both sides appear anxious to make quick progress.

No, not the one between Israel and the Palestinians. I’m talking about making shalom between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. After months of acrimony and apologies, accusations, and attack ads, both sides, feeling battered and bruised, say they’re ready.

The White House, stung by criticism from many of its own friends and supporters in the Jewish community and on Capitol Hill, launched an “aggressive” PR “blitz” to reassure critics that the relationship remains “unshakable and unbreakable,” in the words of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Top level officials, starting with the president, spread the message and tried to head off “domestic repercussions of the recent clashes” between Washington and Jerusalem, reported Politico’s Laura Rozen.

It is a victory for Netanyahu, who complained to supporters here that the administration has been unfair and unkind to him. He has a reputation for clashing with American presidents and a propensity to intrigue against them with their political foes to foil what he considers aggressive peace policies.

The prime minister has resisted pressure from the Obama administration, which at times was clumsy and heavy handed, to force a construction freeze in east Jerusalem and elicit other concessions to the Palestinians in an effort to resume peace talks suspended since late 2008.

But recent talk of an American peace plan may have changed Netanyahu’s mind. There are reports — understandably denied — that he has frozen new construction in east Jerusalem, and he has offered Palestinians a package of confidence-building measures in the hope of heading off an Obama initiative.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran peace envoy, suggests the determined peace processors are all just treading water, moving around a lot but going nowhere.

Peace “requires leaders with the legitimacy, authority, and command of their politics to make a deal stick,” he writes in Foreign Policy, and neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has that. Both are “more prisoners of their constituencies than masters of them.”

There are no “bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders…willing and able to do serious peacemaking,” writes Miller, and there are no signs of any waiting in the wings.

“Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking,” he warns.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas say they want peace but their actions tell a different story. Neither is looking for opportunities to narrow their differences but rather for excuses to avoid serious negotiations and to blame the other for the failure.

Netanyahu has made a number of important moves since his election — notably endorsing a two-state solution — but he has failed to get much credit because he gives the impression that he is being dragged kicking and screaming to the peace table by the big bad President of the United States. That may placate some of his ultra-nationalist coalition partners but it doesn’t help him convince the Arabs, the Europeans, most Israelis, and the Americans that he is serious when he says he wants peace.

Abbas, for his part, seems to be trying to make Netanyahu look dovish. He refuses to meet face-to-face unless his several demands are met, including a freeze on construction in every part of land that he wants for a Palestinian state. His latest move is a call for Obama to “impose” a settlement on Israel.

That drew a quick rejection. Obama wrote a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations declaring “peace cannot be imposed from the outside.” That message has been repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others.

This week, in the wake of their meetings with U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell — he’s trying to launch indirect talks — both Netanyahu and Abbas sounded more conciliatory, perhaps because the White House was busy making nice with Bibi and Abbas got an invitation to the Oval Office.

Netanyahu said he wants to begin talks “immediately,” including on final status issues of borders, refugees, sovereignty, and Jerusalem. Abbas told Israel’s Channel 2 news that he expects negotiations to resume next month. Abbas also made conciliatory remarks about solving the refugee issue and said he opposes a unilateral declaration of statehood.

Don’t rush out to order your tickets for the peace treaty signing ceremony, however. All this really means is that they want peace with the Obama administration. Peace with each other is another matter.

I’m no great fan of former Secretary of State James Baker, but he was right when he declared we can’t want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. And right now, Miller suggests, there are more important issues facing the United States than trying to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians whose leaders are not ready, willing, or able to make difficult decisions and carry them out.

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