Challenges for Obama in what Mitchell hears


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Charged by President Barack Obama with going on a "listening" tour of the Middle East, veteran negotiator George Mitchell spent the week gathering opinions on how the new U.S. administration should tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The former U.S. senator, who brokered a historic peace agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, met with leaders in Egypt, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He is to confer with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal in Riyadh on Sunday, after meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah on Saturday.

If Mitchell listens well, he cannot help but return to Washington with a disturbing picture, and a much more complex one than when he was last in the Middle East in 2000 as then-President Bill Clinton's emissary.

Now, he is visiting a region that is teetering between hope in the new U.S. president's promise of "change," and near despair over the dismal prospects for a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestinians. It is a region where the long-held premise of a "two-state solution" to the 60-year-old conflict is fast fading.

"Whether it was Israel's intention or not," Osama Al Sharif wrote in a column in the English daily Arab News, its three-week war in Gaza "has dealt an almost lethal blow to the two-state solution, which has been the center of U.S.-sponsored negotiations between (Palestinians) and Israel for years."

In a more notable remark, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz two weeks ago publicly warned Israel that the 2002 Arab peace plan envisioning two states would not remain on the table indefinitely.

Part of the reason for this bleak situation is that Mitchell is touring Arab countries still traumatized by Israel's military siege of Gaza.

Before it ended with unilateral truces Jan. 18, the assault had killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. Israel said it was targeting fighters of the Islamist Palestinian movement, Hamas. But journalists and aid workers reported that Israel also bombed schools, hospitals and ice cream factories, sometimes using weapons that left civilian victims horribly burned.

In his brief comments to the press this week, Mitchell repeatedly said that the top priority is "to consolidate" the Jan. 18 truce into "a sustainable and durable cease-fire."

Even this first step is not going to be easy, as several incidents this week underscored. On Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed by a remotely-detonated roadside bomb. On Wednesday, Israel raided tunnels on the Gaza border with Egypt that it says are used for arms smuggling. This was followed by rockets fired into Israel, which retaliated with two attacks that left several civilians dead.

Beyond the still volatile situation in Gaza, Mitchell will find that the region holds many other challenges for the Obama administration.

To begin with, the Palestinian political leadership is deeply fractured between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which is dominant in the West Bank. Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas is President of the Palestinian Authority.

The United States refuses to deal with Hamas, which it has designated a terrorist organization, until it accepts Israel's right to exist and rejects the use of violence. But Washington's preferred interlocutor, Abbas, has been weakened by his ineffectual talks with Israel and his perceived passivity during Israel's war on Gaza.

"I don't think he has any future" as a political leader, Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based political analyst, said in an interview.

This Palestinian divide, which makes negotiating with Palestinians near impossible, is exacerbated by the wider gulf in the Arab world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan favor Fatah. Syria and its partner Iran support Hamas.

Meanwhile, the public mood in Israel is not open to compromise right now. The population overwhelmingly supported the war in Gaza, polls showed. And with elections around the corner on Feb. 10, pundits are predicting that right-wing Likud Party candidate Benjamin Netanyahu will emerge as the winner.

A sampling of Netanyahu's views was on display this week, when he reiterated that he would never agree to share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state, and that he would allow Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to expand.

It is those settlements that are blurring the vision of a two-state solution because they are built where a future Palestinian state is to be constructed.

And in a sign that Netanyahu is not alone among Israeli leaders in backing settlement expansion, the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now this week reported that 1,257 new structures were added to Jewish settlements in 2008, compared with 800 in 2007.

It "is almost certainly too late to implement a viable two-state settlement," wrote Rabbani and Chris Toensing in an essay on the Middle East Report website. "Israeli settlement expansion appears to have proceeded too far, for far too long, to be able to be reversed by an Israeli government that can remain legitimate, even if genuine U.S. pressure is bought to bear."

Then there is Iran. Backing Hamas with funds and arms, Iran is inserting itself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a player to be reckoned with — much to the consternation of Arab states, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

These new challenges, along with the strains of Israel's siege on Gaza, and the arrival in the White House of a new president promising to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world, are all combining to produce what some in the region are calling a "transformational" moment for the Middle East.

Transformation to what is the question. 

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