Crunch time on Middle East peace

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President Obama is poised to jump head first into peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that can no longer move ahead without him.

On Monday, the president will lobby Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to adopt a framework agreement that would facilitate negotiations for a final-status agreement. Two weeks later, Obama will make the same pitch to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Obama's stepped up involvement comes at a perilous time for the fragile peace negotiations, which Secretary of State John Kerry restarted last summer after little movement for the better part of five years. With the easy decisions behind them, Netanyahu and Abbas must now make the tough choices that demand U.S. support at the highest levels.

“There comes a point when the president needs to personally roll up his sleeves and get involved,” said Alan Elsner, spokesman for the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street. “It's much harder to say 'no' to the president.”

Some observers think the talks have hit a roadblock.

State Department officials have openly acknowledged that they’ll likely need more time than the April 29 deadline for a peace deal. And both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have openly criticized elements of the scaled-back framework Kerry has proposed, which would precede another round of negotiations.

“The talks have not been going all that well, and this is an attempt to salvage the process,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “At this point, they see a presidential role is actually needed.”

Others think Obama's engagement is cause for cautious optimism.

“It's a sign that he thinks he can move things forward,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel. He said the U.S. special envoy for the negotiations, Martin Indyk, convinced him that “things are looking a little better than you would have thought” during a briefing for Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill this past week.

Obama's meeting with Netanyahu comes ahead of the planned release of a group of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March, a deeply unpopular move among part of the Israeli leader’s governing coalition. Netanyahu also hasn’t indicated what he plans to do with the Israeli population in the West Bank, another top issue in the talks.

Moreover, Obama will need to argue that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can continue in parallel with efforts to disarm Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu has openly condemned the U.S.-backed agreement to ease sanctions in exchange for a freeze of part of the Iranian nuclear program and signaled that talks with Palestine should come after the Iranian issue is settled.

“The problem with Netanyahu is you can see parts of his coalition is getting very agitated,” Elgindy said. “They’re getting agitated not because they don’t agree on the terms for a two-state solution — it’s because they oppose a two-state solution.”

But Obama also faces a tough challenge in his conversations with Abbas, who was reportedly alienated during a mid-February meeting with Kerry.

The Times of Israel, citing a report in the Arabic-language Palestinian newspaper Al Quds, reported the Palestinian leader was angered by Kerry's proposal for how to establish a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, as well as his proposed borders for a Palestinian state. He accused Kerry of repackaging previous Israeli offers and attempting to squeeze the Palestinians.

Obama will also need to convince Abbas to agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — a sticking point for the Israelis. Abbas told The New York Times earlier this month that such a concession was “out of the question.”

“Both sides have very difficult domestic political equations to deal with,” said Peter Joseph, the chair of the Israel Policy Forum. “They’re being asked to make some very painful decisions, some very painful compromises, and perhaps it requires the president to help them through this process.”

J Street's Elsner said the concessions both sides will be asked to make in Kerry's framework are: Netanyahu will have to accept an Israel drawn along pre-1967 lines with some land swaps and a role for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem; Abbas will have to accept that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and the Palestinian right of return will be mainly exercised in the new Palestinian state.

Obama’s message to Netanyahu and Abbas is expected to be succinct: Both sides have no choice but to continue negotiations because the alternative is far uglier.

“Both sides need to hear that they really have no alternative other than a negotiated settlement,” said Joseph.

According to Israeli paper Al Haaretz, administration officials say Obama plans to ask both leaders, “What’s your plan if the attempt to formulate a framework for further negotiations fails, and the peace process breaks down?”

The prospects for both Netanyahu and Abbas are grim — especially if they’re seen as the party responsible for peace talks breaking down.

For Netanyahu, there is particular concern over the prospect of toughening European Union sanctions against Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. Israeli media has reported that Kerry has raised the specter of the sanctions in talks and indicated the Europeans could consider restrictions that would limit trade and educational exchanges into the disputed territory.

Abbas, for his part, risks severely damaging the Palestinian national movement if he pulls out of the talks. An exit by Abbas would embolden the Israeli right, which has argued the Palestinians aren’t serious about peace, and could undermine efforts at gaining recognition and aid from the international community.

Both leaders are also concerned about the security implications of the talks falling apart.

“There’s a risk of violence on the street,” Elgindy said. “Something could happen — there could be an increase in terrorist attacks; there could be a risk of protest in the street, so they want to preserve the process.”

Elgindy added it was a “calculated risk” for Obama to wade into the process at such a pivotal moment.

“The next five, six weeks are going to be crunch time,” said Joseph. “We’re in a very intense time right now.”

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), suggested Obama can't not get involved.

“There are political risks,” said Engel. “But there are political risks if we don't get involved. There are political risks if things fall apart.”

He cautioned that many details would remain to be ironed out, even if both parties agree on a framework.

“This will continue for many, many months,” Engel predicted. “They're leaving certain things to be negotiated later.”