Just two weeks ago, President Barack Obama joked about winning a Nobel Peace Prize before he’d actually delivered any significant achievement in that realm. Now, it appears Obama may be planning to hold a Middle East peacemaking summit next month.
Outgoing Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon says that during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the spring, President Obama plans to convene a “mini-summit” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and possibly another prominent participant.
“I believe they are already working on a summit meeting between Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas, and perhaps King Abdullah II of Jordan, who the Americans have an interest in strengthening,” Ayalon said at a panel discussion in which he participated on Saturday.
He said the Obama visit “serves an American interest — to reposition the president as the point-man on the Middle East peace process.”
“This visit also means to pave the way for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as the one who will continue to mediate the negotiations between the parties. If the president’s visit fails to yield any results, a lot of eyebrows will be raised,” he added.
Immediately after being confirmed as Secretary of State, Kerry phoned both Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss a resumption of peace talks. This prompted veteran peace negotiator Aaron David Miller to caution Kerry about moving too quickly when stepping into the Mideast minefield in an article called “Chill Out, John Kerry” in The New Republic.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told the New York Times that any peace talks would have to reflect the new threats Israel faces:
You’ve got an Arab Spring, you’ve got Middle Eastern governments mostly focused on their internal stability. […]
You can’t just go up to the attic and blow the dust off a trunk and take out proposals that were put forward 15 years ago when the Middle East looked completely different.
President Joe Biden said at Secretary of State Kerry’s swearing in ceremony that “with John at the helm,” the U.S. hopes to complete an Israeli-Palestinian agreement during Obama’s second term.
All this is naturally raising expectations, even as the White House tries to lower them by saying no new peace plan will be announced in Israel.
The New York Times provides new detail on Obama’s trip, which it reports will include two days in Jerusalem where he will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Mount Herzl cemetery (where Israel’s leaders are buried including slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) and will give a speech either in the Knesset or at a university. He is also expected to visit Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank for several hours.
Ayalon said: “Should the president’s visit not yield results, it would generate a lot of concerns and criticism.”
But the gap between the two sides is huge. Ayalon said, “The minimum that the Palestinians are asking for does not coincide with what Israel is willing to give.” He said:
Abbas wants to be the one to get the Palestinians international recognition (as a state) without relinquishing the right of return and Jerusalem.
On the other hand, he has to answer to the Americans, who are backing his rule… if Netanyahu can get Abbas to say – in Arabic, not English to Hebrew – that he recognizes Israel as the Jewish homeland it would have historical significance for generations to come.
Just last week, Palestinian officials indicated that negotiations can only resume if Obama is ready to get tough with Israel.
Ayalon’s criticism wasn’t reserved only for the Palestinians. He also had some criticism for his own government. This is surprising considering his membership in the right-wing party Israel Beiteinu.
Ayalon said he would like Israel to “recognize a sovereign and independent Palestine.” He said:
Israel will grant sovereignty and independence to the Palestinians, and in exchange they will recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and allow security arrangements. The prime minister must say: ‘I am ready to recognize them but they need to recognize me, and from there we will advance to future arrangements.’
He also accused his former boss, the previous Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of lacking diplomacy.
“It didn’t help that his public statements were undiplomatic — such as that all of Europe was anti-Semitic, and that we ought to force the ouster of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. That didn’t help the way the world looked at him,” Ayalon said.
Ayalon said that while effective diplomats “speak softly and carry a big stick. We speak loudly, and carry a baby carrot.”
Ayalon was unceremoniously dumped from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party (later merged with Netanyahu’s Likud) which took him out of the running for Knesset.
Israeli media report Ayalon is expected to testify against Lieberman in a fraud case.
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