CAIRO – The Obama administration has all but abandoned hope for an early resumption of high-level negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders or substantive movement toward agreement on a Palestinian state – an acknowledgment that it has fallen short, for now, of one of its major initial foreign policy goals.
With virtually no possibility of comprehensive high-level negotiations in the foreseeable future, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun to urge the Arabs to encourage Palestinian participation in lower-level talks with Israel on narrow economic, social and security issues of interest to both sides, according to accounts by Arab and Western diplomats.
“We recognize that things have stalled,” Clinton spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “We’re looking at a variety of ways that increase interaction between the parties in some form.”
Crowley described the proposals as “baby steps” that would eventually “create a momentum of their own, and the effort can pick up steam.”
The baby-steps approach is similar to the policy advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just six weeks ago, President Obama attempted to jump-start direct talks with a clarion call to action.
“Permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon,” he said in a United Nations speech. “It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward.”
But Palestinian rejection last weekend of Israel’s proposal to limit – but not stop – all construction on Arab land was the culmination of months of stalemate and internal political jockeying on both sides that the administration, like so many of its predecessors, has been unable to break through.
Clinton flew here Tuesday night from an international conference in Morocco, where Arab foreign ministers listened skeptically to her reasons for describing an Israeli offer – to allow unlimited construction in East Jerusalem and the completion of up to 3,000 housing units, while exercising “restraint” in the rest of the West Bank – as “unprecedented” and worthy of discussion.
The Arabs offered little response to the limited engagement option Clinton outlined as a way out of the current impasse.
Although she had been scheduled to return to Washington on Tuesday, following a weeklong trip that began in Pakistan, Clinton quickly arranged to travel here for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom Crowley described as “one of the key figures” in the peace process.