The Obama administration continued its early push for progress on Middle East peace today when President Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House. Mubarak had hoped to visit Washington earlier this year, but canceled his trip after the death of his grandson.
The two leaders discussed how Arab countries and Israel can take steps that could pave the way for peace talks. There is, however, deep distrust on both sides, and neither party wants to jump first without assurances from the other that they will reciprocate.
"My hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis but also from the Palestinians, around issues of incitement and security, from Arab States that show their willingness to engage Israel," Obama told reporters after the meeting when asked about Israeli willingness to halt settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem that has been a thorn in the side of negotiations.
The Egyptian president urged immediate action from all sides, echoing similar comments from other Arab leaders in urging the US to push for more concrete talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
"This issue has been ongoing 60 years, and we cannot afford wasting more time, because violence will increase," Mubarak warned.
President Obama's Middle East Peace envoy George Mitchell is expected to present a plan next month on how get the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, according to US, Israeli, and Arab officials. The plan is expected to be unveiled after Mitchell meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London later this month. During that meeting the two sides are expected to agree to a time period during which Israel would freeze settlement activity.
Obama said he was "encouraged" by what he was already seeing on the ground in the West Bank.
"There has been movement in the right direction," Obama said when asked about settlements.
Mitchell has pushed Netanyahu to agree to a 12 month freeze. The Israeli leader has balked, and both sides now expect a compromise to arrange a freeze for 6-8 months. Arab countries have raised concerns that such a window is insufficient time to make the needed progress towards peace.
The US has asked Arab countries to respond by taking conciliatory steps towards Israel, with which they have no diplomatic relations. Exactly what steps could follow remain unclear, but they could include the opening of trade offices in Israel or allowing over-flight of Israeli flagged airliners.
But that plan has been met with some skepticism from a host of Arab officials that have visited Washington in recent weeks. They believe it places too much emphasis on interim trust-building steps, and not enough on bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together for talks on core issues.
"Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and-- we believe-- will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late last month.
"In the Middle East, there has been in the past an over investment perhaps by the parties in pursuing confidence building measures, conflict management techniques, including transitional arrangements, and an over emphasis on gestures, perhaps at the expense of reaching the actual end game," Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said just days later after his own meeting with Clinton.
Mubarak's spokesman offered similar comments today following the Oval Office meeting, saying there have been enough peace plans in the past and now is the time to move forward.
"We don't need more literature," Ambassador Soliman Awaad told reporters, referring to the myriad peace plans that have emerged over the years. "All of us have to take risks, it's worth it."
Awaad was critical, too, that envoy Mitchell's plan has been delayed, saying that President Obama and other US officials have told the Egyptians for months that a plan is only a few weeks away.
Awaad made clear that Egypt and other Arab countries must see a sufficient Israeli settlement freeze before they take any steps of their own.
"These will open the door for the requested reciprocation and confidence building measures. Before that, it will be very difficult," he said.
According to US officials, during a meeting yesterday to tee up the presidential summit, Mubarak urged Secretary Clinton to push Israel to make concessions that Arab countries want to see. That is not out of line with what the US itself has publicly asked Israel to do. Clinton has been vocal in demanding Israel halt settlement activity to pave the way for peace talks.
Regardless of Egyptian comments that Israel must act first, officials say the Obama administration was encouraged by an op-ed Mubarak penned in June, urging Arab countries to do more to help the peace process.
"President Obama has shown a willingness to lead to achieve peace in the Middle East; the Arab world must reciprocate with forthright leadership of its own," Mubarak wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Despite Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab willingness in theory to take steps toward each other, it remains a matter of delicate choreography and timing as the US tries to build trust and get all sides to hold hands and jump together.