For a couple of weeks this month, President Barack Obama's envoys went around Middle East capitals, including Jerusalem, announcing that the president's plan for a new peace initiative for the region had been scrapped.
(See article headlined “Netanyahu unresponsive to Obama's gestures,” in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue 406 of July 24).
But then, this week, presidential envoy George Mitchell turned up in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Ramallah and reported the president had changed his mind.
His embarrassment was apparent from the uncharacteristic posture of bureaucrat he assumed instead of competent emissary: Don't argue with me, Mitchell told Middle East leaders, I'm only following the president's instructions. Any comments should be taken up directly with President Obama; my job is simply to promote his peace plan.
For the moment, this plan is still a rough sketch with five main sections, which are disclosed here by DEBKA-Net–Weekly:
A. A multinational Middle East conference will be convened in September with the participation of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Israel and world powers, such as the US, Russia, China, India and Europe.
B. Its primary objective will be to promote peace accords between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians.
C. Negotiating panels will focus on two major issues: Middle East arms control, i.e. nuclear, chemical and biological weapons disarmament; and the distribution of water resources among the region's countries.
D. Obama's timeline for the Middle East conference is the second half of September, shortly before the US-Iranian dialogue is scheduled to begin on September 24.
E. The US president has obtained endorsement for his planned conference from London, Paris and Berlin.
Obama willing to stage conference in Moscow
According to our Middle East sources, Mitchell won Syrian president Bashar al-Assad over to the US president's plan when they met Sunday, July 26, by promising to ensure the resumption of peace negotiations with Israel – this time under American instead of Turkish auspices.
Mitchell then reported to the Israeli and Egyptian leaders that this pledge had persuaded Assad to approve Lebanese-Israeli peace talks.
When Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented that it was impossible to conduct such complicated peace talks simultaneously with multiple partners, Mitchell replied in the vein of: “Sorry, tough. That's how President Obama wants it.”
Mitchell was even brusquer when Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his old refrain that the Netanyahu government must first meet Palestinian preconditions for coming to the table.
Don't even dream of foot-dragging, he was told. Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were scheduled for the immediate term.
The conference venue has not yet been settled. The US envoy reported that Obama has no problem with Moscow if that is what the Russians want.
The waves set up by Mitchell's mission this time provoked urgent calls from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's office which requested that he consult with Cairo before taking his mission any further. The night of Monday, July 27, the US envoy accordingly interrupted his meetings in Israel and, after wrapping up his rendezvous with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, he flew to the Egyptian capital. There, he was astonished to hear that his first priority before promoting Obama's peace conference must be to save Mahmoud Abbas from disaster.
In a long and convoluted discourse, Mubarak explained to his American visitor that if Abbas fails to convene the Fatah general conference on its appointed date, Tuesday, Aug. 4 in Bethlehem – or bring it to an orderly conclusion with resolutions – he will be finished. The Obama peace plan would fly out of the window with the Palestinian leader, the Egyptian president warned.
Our sources report that the bickering and backbiting among the hundreds of Fatah delegates threatens to sabotage the conference before it begins, leaving Mahmoud Abbas' position at the helm as leading Palestinian peace negotiator under a dense cloud.
The arms control poison pill
Mubarak therefore believes the Obama initiative is hanging by a slender thread – and not only because of the Palestinian shambles – say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources.
Five more major impediments block his five-point Middle East blueprint, with no clear view of how the White House proposes to overcome them:
1. Arms control:
By including this issue on the prospective Middle East conference agenda, the US president clearly hopes to achieve three goals:
First: Meeting Tehran's demand to deal with Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal along with Iran's nuclear program as a mark of goodwill to the Islamic Republic.
Second: Establishing the first international platform for the US-Iranian nuclear dialogue which he expects to launch shortly thereafter.
Our sources point out that with the Iranian regime in its current state of disarray, (see separate article in this issue), it is far from certain that negotiations will ever take off. Even if they do, Tehran may not agree to let its nuclear issues be brought before a forum that includes Arab, Gulf and Israeli representatives. Obama's insistence on this point may well be enough to shut the door on Iranian diplomatic engagement with Washington. And if that hurdle were not enough, Iran is dead against the two-state formula espoused by Washington and Europe.
Third: Using a debate on Middle East arms control for twisting Israel's arm to move forward in Middle East negotiations at the spanking pace dictated by Washington. The White House believes the Netanyahu government will be galvanized by the threat of having its nuclear arsenal placed onthe conference table.
High-ranking Israeli sources told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that placing arms control on the conference agenda will have one certain result: The event will go into total stalemate before it begins. The Arabs will use the opportunity to demand that Israel dismantle its putative nuclear weapons, and Israel will dig in hard against moving forward on any other issue until the Arab demand is scratched.
So how does the White House propose to steer round this built-in stalemate?
2. World powers participation
What role will the US president assign such world powers as Russia and China – or even Japan, India, and Brazil – at a Middle East conference, when all his efforts at Middle East understandings with Moscow and Beijing, especially on Iran's nuclear drive, have come to naught? Washington's bid for cooperation with Japan, Brazil and India on these issues within the G-20 and other frameworks have likewise foundered.
Obama might well find the United States outvoted if this formidable line-up of participants does indeed come together, with Russia and China finding more common ground with the other world participants than with the United States.
3. Obama's breach widens with Saudi King Abdullah
Obama's Middle East peace concept is built around bilateral peace accords embodying territorial and security concessions by Israel against the assurance of regional Arab gestures towards normalizing relations. Saudi Arabia was tagged by the US president as leading the way for this endeavor, but he quickly ran into fierce opposition from King Abdullah and his entire court.
He also found Riyadh concomitantly resistant to US plans for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Obama hoped to bypass King Abdullah with messages on these issues to seven Arab leaders in relations with Washington. But they all promptly contacted the Saudi monarch with a full report on the US president's notes.
It now turns out, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, that the ongoing thaw in Washington's relations with Damascus is putting Abdullah's back up increasingly against Syrian president Bashar Assad.
So even if Washington manages to buy Damascus' cooperation for its Lebanon and Palestinian policies – it is not yet in the bag by a long chalk – it is likely to be sabotaged by the Saudi king.
4. Hizballah will torpedo Israel-Lebanese peace move
It is unclear on what grounds Obama presupposes a peace track between Israel and Lebanon in the framework of his Middle East conference. This scenario would mean that Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah or his senior colleagues have given their consent to the White House plan in their often secret and unofficial contacts with US, British and French go-betweens.
It would also indicate that Hizballah had finally agreed to disarm.
Neither proposition – vital to progress in view of Hizballah's veto power over Beirut policies – has been confirmed by any quarter.
5. Iran is dead against a two-state solution
Islamist Iran and its surrogates Hamas and Hizballah are flat against any peace solution that would legitimize the state of Israel's existence. The US president bent over backwards to force the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to articulate his endorsement of the two-state concept. But he can only knock his head on the wall of the three rejectionists' pledge to support “armed resistance to the Zionist entity” until “every part of Palestine is liberated.”
Under these circumstances, even if the Middle East conference does take off, it will peter out like the Madrid conference which President George Bush Sr. and Secretary of state Jim Baker drummed up in 1991.
President Obama's conception of a Middle East peace conference to take place in less than two months is similar in many respects to the event of 18 years ago in form, content and ultimate goals.
Mitchell certainly understands that being overly ambitious could be self-defeating. And so, when asked about the peace conference, he commented that the term “peace” might be a bit too broad and in fact he was thinking more on the lines of an Israeli-Lebanese committee to be formed under UNIFIL's auspices to discuss the issues of the divided village of Ghajar and the distribution of water from the Hazbani and Vazani rivers. This would be a major retreat from the world class, round-table event he first discussed.