No US Peace Initiatives Imminent

Incoming US secretary of state Hillary Clinton trod ground well trampled by all her predecessors Tuesday, Feb. 3 when she hailed George Mitchell's first Middle East trip last week as a “diplomatic force projection” and “the first of what will be an ongoing, high level of engagement by Senator Mitchell on behalf of myself and the President.”

She stuck to the ritual by saying: “We are looking to work with all the parties to try and help them make progress toward a negotiated agreement that would end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, create an independent and viable Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza and provide Israel with the peace and security that it has sought.”

Mitchell commented that he was planning to “establish a regular and sustained presence in the region.”

However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, neither statement represents the White House's real intentions at this time.

In recent discussions on where to go on the Middle East, Barack Obama and his foreign policy teams found there was no rhyme or reason in trying to get to grips with an Israel-Palestinian settlement in the present situation and recommended setting it aside during his first year as president.

The most outspoken advocate of a rest in Middle East diplomacy was National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones. He argued that the Palestinians are torn between two rival authorities which rule the two halves of their designated territory. One is backed by Iran and the other ruled by a weak leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is constantly in need of external props to survive. In these circumstances, he said, diplomacy for a solution of the conflict has nowhere to go.


Economic and security infrastructure before peace diplomacy


President Obama decided therefore to entrust George Mitchell with three long-term missions:

1. Building a viable economy for the West Bank backed by several hundred million dollars of US assistance. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington and Jerusalem sources report that this decision was reached in quiet talks between US officials and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, the frontrunner for heading the next Israeli government after the Feb. 10 general election.

This decision is compatible with Netanyahu's plan for taking the Palestinian question to a different direction from that pursued by previous Israeli governments. Instead of dealing with the standardized end-issues of peace diplomacy, such as a Palestinian state, the evacuation of Jewish settlements, Jerusalem and refugees, he proposes to first build a solid economic infrastructure for a future Palestinian entity on the West Bank. Once that is set up and stable, it can form the basis for future state institutions.

President Obama bought Netanyahu's proposition.

2. The US will continue its substantial investment in the American-British training effort to create efficient Palestinian security forces. They are to provide insurance for the pro-Western character of the West Bank and a guarantee that it will not go the way of the Gaza Strip and fall under radicalizing Islamist and Iranian influences.

3. The US administration hopes that robust economic and security institutions will one day produce a Palestinian leader capable of taking over from Mahmoud Abbas.


Mitchell organizes his teams


In the meantime, the administration will continue to support him – not because he can handle constructive peace negotiations with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, but because he is all they have at the moment.

Mitchell's initial tour of Middle East capitals last month was therefore a familiarization exercise and not expected to develop into substantive diplomacy any time soon.

Meanwhile, he will take time for building two teams or task forces for two main fields of activity, revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources:

One will take charge of dealings with Syria and Lebanon. It will be headed by Fred Hoff of the State Department. A second will look after the Palestinian issue under former US ambassador to Cairo and Tel Aviv, Dan Kurtzer.

The Middle East Quartet's Middle East envoy, former UK premier Tony Blair, will coordinate his work with George Mitchell through his chief of staff, Robert Danin, formerly of the US State Department.

At the National Security Council, Daniel Shapiro, one of Obama's Middle East campaign advisers, steps into the shoes of NSC's Deputy Head, Elliot Abrams.

Although the areas under his control cover the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia – from Morocco to Bangladesh – Shapiro will be less directly involved in the minutia of decision-making on Palestinian, Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese issues than Abrams was in George W. Bush's White House. 

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