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U.S. giving away too much, too early in Mideast peace talks, some say

The Obama administration appears desperate to keep the talks from collapsing and keep its reputation from taking a hit, allies and diplomats say.

October 07, 2010|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Only a month into a new round of peace talks, the Obama administration is drawing criticism from allies and veteran diplomats that it is giving away too much just to keep negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians from collapsing.

Administration officials have offered an assortment of inducements to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a freeze on Jewish construction in the West Bank for two months. Palestinian officials have threatened to break off the talks unless Israel extends the freeze that expired Sept. 26.

The U.S. has been wooing Netanyahu for weeks with offers including a squadron of F-35 fighters, support for a long-term Israeli troop presence in a new Palestinian state, and a pledge to veto any anti-Israel resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. also is offering access to its satellites that could provide early warning of attacks.

To the Palestinians, the White House is pledging support for their position on the exact location of borders for a future state in exchange for a promise to continue negotiating even if Israel refuses to extend the construction moratorium.

Although the Obama administration was expected to eventually give out incentives to keep the negotiations alive, diplomats and other observers say they are surprised that it has offered so much, so early for such a small victory: a commitment by both sides to keep talking.

"From the left to the right, people are saying that the administration is looking desperate," said Robert Danin, a former U.S. official and an advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an envoy to the region for the United Nations, U.S., European Union and Russia.

The U.S. offers have made waves in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Some Israeli lawmakers have urged Netanyahu to hold out for even more. Others believe that the U.S. pledges are so generous that Israel can't rely on President Obama to make good on them.

"Bizarre Bazaar — Haggling over the Price" was the headline this week in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

The Palestinian leadership has been shocked by the U.S. pledge to support a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern edge of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was "pale and incredulous" when he announced the offer to his team, said one person close to him. Palestinians were expecting that any agreement on an Israeli security presence would be negotiated well down the line in the horse-trading before the final deal.

The White House's willingness to pay a steep price so early in the game reflects the huge stakes for the administration. Obama has said repeatedly that peace the Middle East is vital to U.S. national security.

U.S. officials fear that if the talks fail now, it may be months before they can coax the sides back to the table, and by then they might be dealing with a new and less cooperative Palestinian leadership. And collapse of the talks would hurt U.S. prestige in the region.

"This has become all about American credibility, and that's why there's such an effort to keep it going," said one person close to the talks, who was unwilling to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Netanyahu, who wants to preserve good ties to the United States, appears to be leaning toward accepting the deal to extend the construction moratorium if he can garner enough support from some moderate Cabinet members.

But one Israeli official said the terms haven't been finalized and that Netanyahu hasn't made up his mind. "We're not there yet," he said.

The strategy to win Israel's support was crafted in large part by White House Mideast advisor Dennis Ross, a longtime negotiator in the region who has the confidence of the Israelis. Others in the administration disagree with the approach, fearing the United States is spending valuable chips on a process issue, leaving it little leverage to forge agreement on substantive matters such as final borders and the status of Jerusalem.

In addition, unless the Israelis and Palestinians make enormous strides toward a deal, the United States may end up in the same position in two months: facing another expired construction moratorium and the Palestinians threatening to quit the talks. U.S. officials have promised they will not press Israel for another extension.

Obama has vowed that the United States would help broker a peace deal, but also has emphasized that "we cannot want it more than the parties themselves." Yet observers say the U.S. appears to be in precisely that position.

The U.S. "is projecting the image of wanting it too much, which is not a good place to be in any negotiation," said Robert Malley, who was a chief Mideast peace negotiator for President Clinton.

The struggle over the settlement freeze has renewed criticism of the American decision last year to focus on that issue before opening talks. Many players, among them some Arab governments, believe that it created a distraction from the main issues.

If Netanyahu accepts the deal, complaints about the U.S. approach are likely to subside. If he ends up snubbing Obama, an Arab diplomat predicted, "people in the region will say, 'You mean you can't even bring along the Israelis?' "

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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