President Barack Obama may travel to the Middle East in September to lead a grand ceremony in Cairo for launching direct Israel-Palestinian talks. If he does, he may also spend 36 or 48 hours in Israel – so rebuffing complaints that since taking office he has visited Arab states during Middle East trips, but pointedly skipped Israel.
A decision will be taken, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, after the president consults with his advisers during his 10-day summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard for which he left Washington Wednesday, August 18.
The first family is to be joined there by counterterrorism executive John Brennan, National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough and senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse.
An alternative plan is to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inaugurate the peace conference in his stead.
The argument for Obama making the trip is that a visit to the region and Israel would give Democrats facing election in November a leg up and offset some of the damage caused by the president's comment in favor of a mosque and Islamic center going up near Ground Zero in New York – from which popular ire forced him to partly backtrack.
Obama would also like to use his opening of direct Israel-Palestinian talks as the occasion for addressing broader issues, such as the end of the US combat mission in Iraq and Iran.
Why venture into a minefield?
But five obstacles must first be considered and dealt with:
1. Some of his advisers judge the time and place for an Obama speech inappropriate. An upsurge of terrorist operations is forecast by intelligence to strike Iraq in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. It could well be magnified to overshadow the president's appearance in the region, shout down his Cairo address and give his political foes extra fodder.
2. Peace efforts involving the Palestinians have historically drawn its opponents into horrifying terrorist acts. This time, Iran and its affiliates, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would pitch in to ruin the effort by inflaming border tensions
3. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas are not too happy about Obama or Clinton making a speech for kicking off their talks. Both are worried, especially Netanyahu, that the US president would depart from any agreed script and introduce views they do not accept on such intractable issues as Jerusalem, permanent borders and the Palestinian state.
The launch of direct talks is no breakthrough to anything
4. Some of Obama's White House advisers say the launching of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks is no big deal – certainly not big enough or novel enough to rate a presidential appearance – or even that of a secretary of state. The scales are weighted heavily against their success, say these advisers. and, in any case, contrary to much propaganda, their relevance to major Middle East events is marginal and does not rate a dramatic intervention by the US president.
The possible transition from proxy talks to direct negotiations does not impress former US Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller either. He said Wednesday, August 18: "It would be a mistake of epic proportions to conclude that we've now reached a fundamental turning point that is going to produce quick or easy progress, let alone results." President Obama would do better to "park" the issue until after November mid-term congressional elections, rather than risk "another fight with the Israelis," Miller said.
Moscow stands in the way
5. In the last 48 hours, the Russians have put in their oar on Middle East peacemaking and, like on the Iranian nuclear issue, insist on getting their views across. They have made it clear that they would veto Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) support for an Obama speech unless it incorporated the Arab demands for Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, dismantle all its settlements and continue the construction freeze on the West Bank and in Jerusalem beyond September 25.
US officials tried hard to explain that if the US supported these demands in advance, the Israelis would back out and there would be no negotiations. But the Russians were not listening.