Obama's Mideast Envoy Tries to Talk Peace

If U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell had any illusions that making peace in the Middle East would be easy, his first 24 hours on the ground may have quickly destroyed them.

The Gaza cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is creaking under the weight of tit for tat attacks by both sides. Just today, more rockets were fired into Israel, and Israel hit back with yet more airstrikes.

The violence has narrowed the focus of former U.S. Sen. Mitchell's maiden visit into trying to shore up the cease-fire and to agree on a deal to open Gaza's borders. The deal must initiate the reconstruction of Gaza after Israel's recent assault and satisfy Israeli demands that Hamas will not be able to rearm and regroup.

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The military confrontation and the resultant civilian and infrastructure toll have heightened the sense of urgency around President Obama's early engagement here. But it has all made it more difficult.

Mitchell has met all of Israel's leading politicians and senior figures from the country's powerful military and security institutions. All of them will have warned him of the existential danger presented by Hamas and its Iranian sponsor.

But despite the battering, Hamas remains defiant and in control of Gaza. Israel, meanwhile, is in pre-election fever with polls suggesting a shift to the right, an indicator that voters believe the current center-left government failed in its mission to weaken Hamas.

So that means a Palestinian body politic that is as divided as ever, and the prospect of a new Israeli government led by Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and others, who are no fans of the "two state" solution.

"The conditions are as bad or worse than they've ever been" is the view of Yossi Klein Halevi at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem's right of center Israeli think tank.

"Paradoxically, had the Israeli army gone all the way and toppled Hamas in Gaza, I think we would be in a more propitious situation in terms of jump-starting the peace process," he said.

According to Halevi, the Obama administration should accordingly lower its expectations away from talk of a final settlement in favor or more incremental steps in slowly rewarding Palestinian moderates.

"I think if Mitchell goes for the bigger issues he will fail more quickly and more decisively than his predecessors," said Halevi. "This is not the time for a final settlement. Washington needs to show a bit of humility and to lower its expectations about what is achievable."

Today Mitchell went to the West Bank to talk with U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. It may as well be a million miles from Gaza, and many Palestinians accuse Abbas of siding much too closely with Israel. He has never been popular among rank and file Palestinians. He is even less so today.

For over a year, Abbas has been the U.S.-Israeli address for a virtual peace process that many Palestinians believe has led them nowhere.

Wednesday the Israeli peace group Peace Now published its annual report on Jewish settlement expansion in the Palestinian West Bank. During a year in which the Bush administration was trying to forge a comprehensive blue print for peace, the Israeli government sanctioned a 57 percent increase in buildings within West Bank settlements.

Natural growth, according to the Israelis, but a sign of bad faith, according to Palestinians.

Either way, it has further eroded Abbas' credibility at a time when even some moderate Palestinians are giving up hope on the two state promise. For them the election of President Obama is akin to the last roll of the dice, it's an atmosphere that inspires dangerously high expectations. For them, a cautious step by step approach by Mitchell simply won't do.

For veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, the Obama team "must get positively engaged, they must be involved in peace making, not just in peace negotiations. They must have the political will to stand up to Israeli violations, and they must produce results on the ground, otherwise the peace process will produce only negative results."

Clearly, the two sides view this "moment" in very different ways. The situation on both sides is fluid in the aftermath of the fighting and in the run-up to Israeli elections. Mitchell's task was to come and listen to the different voices many of whom openly admit this "moment" is more unstable than any they can remember.

The need for real progress here has never been more urgent, the conditions never more difficult.