Two trial balloons floated on Wednesday, April 7 in the Washington Post – Obama Weighs New Peace Plan for the Middle East – and The New York Times – Should US Design Mideast Peace Plan? – were a transparent and clumsy administration attempt to obscure the hectic activity afoot in the White House on the next US Middle East moves, that is, until Obama is good and ready to go public.
Both reported on a White House meeting on March 24 of six former presidential national security advisers, called by the incumbent James Jones to survey such urgent topics as Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.
When they came to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, all the participants are described as of one mind that, as one senior American official put it, incrementalism hasn't worked and the US cannot let the Palestinian problem "keep festering – providing fodder for Iran and other extremists. As a global power with global responsibilities, we have to do something."
At that point, President Barack Obama "just happened" to look in on the meeting and "just happened" to ask those present for their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources note that the unusual get-together of half a dozen national security advisers to both Democratic and Republic presidents took place just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu left the White House from a disastrous tête-à-tête with the president.
The White House decides to impose its plan on the parties
It is therefore hard to shake off the impression that the six wise veterans were summoned to provide strong support for Obama's policies versus the Israeli prime minister, a wall-to-wall endorsement for the president to make public at the right moment.
And, indeed, that was the moment, he decided to take the advice given him in the fall of 2008, before he was elected, to impose his own plan on Israel and the Palestinians. That advice came from three former NSAs, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Sandy Berger and Brent Scowcroft.
It was adopted first by Jim Jones and now sold to the president.
In a flurry of emails and phone calls this week, the administration continued to protest that no peace plan had been firmly formulated yet," they said. "All kinds of possibilities are being considered," and "the internal debate at the White House goes on."
But the recipients of these messages, reading between the lines, figured that the internal debate at the White House was over and the president has plumped for a plan that is almost ready to go, barring minor battles over clauses. After he goes public, it will be hard for the administration to go back and rewrite any details.
According to our sources, the end of the internal debate in the White House means that National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones has won the president over to his approach – against the counsels of Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell and Special Adviser to the President in the NSC, Dennis Ross.
Ross: No US Middle East plan now is sustainable
Mitchell advocated the step-by-step, incrementalist, approach for coaxing concessions one by one from the Israelis and Palestinians, with the United States offering bridging proposals later. Ross argued that it was pointless for a US peace plan to be floated now, before the West Bank Palestinians had set up the political, economic and infrastructural mechanisms of statehood, because any US design would collapse like a house without foundations.
Ross's view was seconded by the Middle East Quartet's special envoy Tony Blair, who has been supervising the establishment of Palestinian organs of government, and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
With regard to the balance of power in the White House, Jones, who was discounted as a paper-pusher rather than a global strategist, has come out of the contest ahead of his fellow-advisers with enhanced influence on the president. Some insiders wonder if they may not have underestimated him. After all, he managed to lull the entire pack in the White House and State Department, while deploying old warhorses like Brzezinski and Scowcroft for maneuvering the president around to his point of view on how to handle the Middle East imbroglio.
Back on October 15, 2009, at an appearance at the Fourth Annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), Jones said: "We must move beyond talking about talks and get to the hard work of addressing the core issues that separate Israelis and Palestinians. President Obama's dedication to achieve these goals is unshaken, he is committed, and we will be relentless in our pursuit of achieving these goals."
Now, he has succeeded in upstaging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross. After the president has spoken, they must all follow the Jones line on the Middle East, or risk being thrown out of the game.
Two veterans failed to curtail Israel's influence in the past
Those concerned in Jerusalem were this week using a magnifying glass to pore through an article published by Brzezinski and Scowcroft in the Washington Post on November 21, 2008, under the headline: Middle East Priorities for January 21 (the date Obama entered the White House).
Two passages stood out starkly. The first said:
Resolution of the Palestinian issue would have a positive impact on the region. It would liberate Arab governments to support U.S. leadership in dealing with regional problems, as they did before the Iraq invasion. It would dissipate much of the appeal of Hezbollah and Hamas, dependent as it is on the Palestinians' plight. It would change the region's psychological climate, putting Iran back on the defensive and putting a stop to its swagger.
The second passage was concerned with achieving this goal:
The major elements of an agreement are well known. A key element in any new initiative would be for the U.S. President to declare publicly what, in the view of this country, the basic parameters of a fair and enduring peace ought to be. These should contain four principal elements: 1967 borders, with minor, reciprocal and agreed-upon modifications; compensation in lieu of the right of return for Palestinian refugees; Jerusalem as real home to two capitals; and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state.
Has this pair been given a second chance?
These views run contrary to Israeli policies and aims. In addition, Israeli strategists found them unsettling because when they were in office, both authors set out to counter Israel's special standing and influence in Washington and failed.
Scowcroft, as Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Nixon and Ford administrations and Chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005; and Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser in the 1970s, both argued that the special relationship with Israel was detrimental to America's national interests and should be scrapped.
It is feared in Jerusalem that the two veteran advisers may have won a second chance to achieve their goal under the Obama administration.
It remains to be seen how far President Obama is willing to go in embracing their approach. But already, Israel is deeply conscious that the leeway afforded its interests in Washington has narrowed conspicuously.