DEBKAfile Exclusive Analysis
July 25, 2009, 1:23 PM (GMT+02:00)
Binyamin Netanyahu - slow to respond
A flock of US presidential emissaries descends on Israel this week. DEBKAfile's Washington sources report that their briefs reflect US president Barack Obama's new caution on his next Middle East steps. He has backed away from formulating a new Middle East plan which he was widely reported as preparing to unveil at the end of July and shied away from a showdown with Israel on such touchy issues as settlement expansion.
The coming week's arrivals, for which prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepared by convening his kitchen cabinet of six ministers Friday, will be led by defense secretary Robert Gates followed by national security adviser James Jones and presidential adviser Dennis Ross. Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell is first stopping off in Damascus Saturday, July 25, for talks set up by his Syrian deskman Fred Hof.
The visitors to Israel will be accompanied by a large party of CIA and military high-ups.
Our sources report that Obama began reassessing his Middle East initiatives last month. To complete this turnabout, he is awaiting a response from prime minister Netanyahu, who is drawing much criticism in Washington for being slow to respond. The Israeli government has allowed the public and local media columnists to believe that a crisis in US-Israel relations is ongoing and that the Obama's US administration would be the first to try and impose a peace settlement on Israel.
His envoys have tried to dispel this impression by informing Israeli leaders that the US president was not about to launch any new Middle East peace initiatives. Obama has furthermore watered down his demand for a total freeze on settlement construction and is willing to countenance expansion for accommodating natural growth. However, here too, the Israeli government is accused of holding back the figures and refusing to specify whether it covers 400 or 4,000 building starts.
Some White House sources complain that only after Netanyahu met Obama in the White House on May 18 did he affirm his acceptance of Palestinian statehood in four public statements. Had he said "two-state solution" out loud at that meeting, the relationship would have got off on a friendly footing from the start instead of appearing to go downhill.
DEBKAfile's Washington sources add that Mitchell is visiting Damascus for the second time in a month to explore the resumption of Syrian-Israel talks. The White House now appreciates that the peace process with the Palestinians is going nowhere any time soon. A high-ranking US official told our sources that this track will remain in deadlock for as long as Arab rulers like Saudi King Abdullah reject any gestures towards Israel in return for concessions and the Fatah-Hamas feud continues to keep the West Bank Gaza Strip apart under separate administrations.
President Obama has accordingly decided "to avoid a situation where he gets nothing from Arab leaders and is at odds with the Jews." This will more easily permit common ground to be broached on the Iranian nuclear issue.