White House officials admit that the Middle East like Afghanistan is in a tangle, but they hold out hope that in the second half of September the dark clouds will part for a ray of cheer when US initiatives achieve several breakthroughs in its knotted affairs.
This optimism, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly Washington sources, rests on three future events:
1. On Tuesday, September 22, President Barack Obama, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will get together for a summit spectacle at UN center in New York. This will be no symbolic photo-op, say White House advisers, but the moment at which the stalled peace negotiations are resumed in earnest between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab countries.
They totally reject as an optical illusion claims that Netanyahu outmaneuvered President Obama on a settlement expansion moratorium.
“What happened,” said a senior Washington official familiar with the minutiae of the White House-Netanyahu negotiations, “is that the President decided to let the Israeli prime minister feel he has won points on the settlement issue while squeezing him for more substantial concessions on other points at a later stage.”
2. President Obama has in fact accepted the position taken by Mahmoud Abbas and Arab rulers that the peace talks, which he insists will resume before the end of this month, must restart at the point reached by Ehud Olmert in his talks with the Palestinians and Syrians before he stepped down as Israeli prime minister last year.
Obama backs Arab demand for Israel's full territorial withdrawal
That source recalls reports that Olmert offered to restore the entire Golan area to Syria and hand 98.2 percent of the West Bank over to the Palestinians. “This time,” said the source, “the President will stick to his guns and he has made this very clear to Netanyahu in recent weeks.” He admitted that Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak dictated this pre-condition as an ultimatum: Unless Washington backs them up, the Middle East diplomatic process will not take off.
The Saudis argued that Olmert and Netanyahu were the products of the same right-wing, nationalist “Land of Israel” movement and if the latter refuses to part with this ideology the Arabs will be wasting their time talking to him.
As soon as Obama agreed to this formula, the Saudi king abandoned his resistance to reopening peace talks with Israel and showed his limited and conditional support by three steps in his sphere of influence in the Arab arena:
First, he metaphorically banged the rival Palestinian leaders' heads together, informing Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal that their feud, which sprang from Hamas' Gaza Strip coup of June 2007, was at an end.
Like it or not, the time had come, he told them, to form a Palestinian national unity government and present a single delegation to the US-sponsored peace talks with Israel. If they refuse, Riyadh and Cairo would sever all ties with the Palestinians.
(See HOT POINTS of September 9 below.)
Second, Saudi Arabia withdrew its objections to other Arab states, including Persian Gulf emirates, extending low-grade relations with Israel, such as low-level diplomatic ties, trade relations and access to their airports for Israeli flights or over-flights en route to faraway destinations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that after Riyadh opened this door, the Obama administration followed up by persuading these Arab governments to announce limited ties with Israel as soon as peace talks begin: Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the Unite Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Djibouti.
The Saudis say no to any ties at all. But did anyone check with side B?
The oil kingdom itself has not agreed to establish any sort of direct or indirect relations with Israel at this stage. In fact, the Saudis turned down flat a new US suggestion that Israeli airliners bound for the Far East would be permitted to fly over Saudi Arabia after first touching down in Amman and painting the Royal Jordanian Airways logo over the El Al markings. (EL AL flight LY 081 to Bangkok would metamorphose into Royal Jordanian Airways Flight RJ 921).
Third, the Saudis will take part in all meetings and bilateral discussions on regional issues held in the framework of the peace talks, such as water, nuclear energy and disarmament.
White House staff optimism about the Israel-Arab peace track leans heavily on Arab responses rather than reflecting the Israeli position – for good reason.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's political sources, both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli government point man in contacts with the White House, and presidential Middle east envoy George Mitchell, refuse outright to begin the resumed peace talks after the triple New York summit from the point said to have been reached by ex-prime minister Olmert either on the Syrian or the Palestinian tracks.
It now appears that there is no formal record of those talks.
Netanyahu and Barak admit the transfer of authority after Israel's 2008 election included an oral report by Olmert on his talks with Abbas and (indirectly) with Assad. But when they asked for transcripts of those talks and any binding written agreements signed by those leaders, Olmert replied that no one had taken minutes of those meetings and there were therefore no documents to sign.
The Israeli leaders have made it clear that they will not enter into diplomatic negotiations from a point they do not accept, embodying purported concessions to which Israel never committed – just because the Obama administration says so.
According to our Washington sources, US administration officials informed Netanyahu and Barak that Abbas claims to have transcripts of his talks with Olmert in his possession. They replied that Olmert has no knowledge of such transcripts and they must therefore have been fabricated by the Palestinian leader.
What this means is that after Washington and Jerusalem skirted a showdown over the settlement issue, an even bigger cloud is moving in over the prospect of Middle East peace talks taking off and it threatens to rain on the cheerful prognosis heard this week in Washington.