Does Obama have a plan for peace — or a plan for a plan?

Following weeks of meetings between U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, center, and leaders in the Middle East, President Obama reportedly is set to put forth new proposals for advancing Israeli-Arab talks. (White House / Pete Souza)

Following weeks of meetings between U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, center, and leaders in the Middle East, President Obama reportedly is set to put forth new proposals for advancing Israeli-Arab talks. (White House / Pete Souza)

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Are the parties in the Middle East ready for a U.S. peace plan? Or just for a plan for a peace plan?

Talk of a near-term U.S. peace plan was spurred last week when a State Department official said one would be in place "within weeks" — a projection confirmed within a day by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"I think it will be in a matter of weeks," the spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said in an Aug. 3 briefing when he was asked when George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, would present a plan.

Barak echoed the same message a day later during a briefing to the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a Reuters report.

"In the coming weeks,” Barak said, “their plan will be formulated and presented to the parties.”

Officials in the pro-Israel community and among foreign diplomats now say those projections were premature, that Obama administration officials were preparing the ground for the modalities of peace talks rather than a plan with specifics.

"What we know with our contacts with the administration is that they were satisfied with results of conversations Mitchell had in Israel," a European diplomat told JTA. "There appears to be some confidence in the White House that there is an overall optimism that a breakthrough can be made — but there is no specific plan."

According to the current scenario, Obama may be ready by the start of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September to speak about deadlines and about where the talks will take place and who will participate.

Specifics, however, have been frustrated by a who-blinks-first dynamic that has overtaken U.S. diplomacy for the time being.

Arab states want Israel to commit to a settlement freeze before they announce concessions that would include allowing Israeli overflights and limited trade. Israel wants to see the concessions, and a stated recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature from the Palestinians and other Arabs, before it commits to a freeze. And the Palestinians have said that Israel must freeze settlement before they return to the table.

Hopes for progress were not helped by the long-delayed congress convened last week by Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian party that controls affairs in the West Bank. The congress bogged down in debates over the tactics of "resistance" as opposed to peacemaking.

The belligerence at the conference, with resolutions demanding all of Jerusalem and accusing Israel of murdering Yasser Arafat, belied a readiness for peace and handed an opening to U.S. pro-Israel groups that have scrambled in recent weeks for the means to defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies.

The Fatah congress had the effect of marginalizing Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president, said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris.

"Two months ago, President Abbas firmly rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call in his Bar-Ilan University speech to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and now Abbas ups the ante with preposterous demands on Jerusalem and other final-status issues,” Harris said. “Why can’t Palestinian leaders openly recognize the fact that four consecutive Israeli prime ministers have offered a two-state solution?”

Another distraction for the Obama administration was his awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the former U.N. human rights commissioner who has been blamed in some circles for having failed to keep the U.N. conference on racism in Durban in 2001 from becoming an anti-Israel fest.

That news invited a flood of critiques from Jewish organizational officials who were glad for the break from having to explain the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from Jerusalem homes they had occupied for decades.

The centrist pro-Israel groups were not about to cede the upper ground. More than 70 U.S. senators this week signed a letter, strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Commmittee and opposed by some Jewish groups that favor increased U.S. pressure on Israel, urging Obama to focus on pressuring Arab nations to conciliate with Israel. A companion letter from the U.S. House of Representatives was sent to Saudi Arabia’s king.

The gaps between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and between some pro-Israel groups and the White House here does not mean Obama’s peacemakers will stand down. And Barak, the Israeli defense minister, warned his colleagues that they should be ready to play along when the White House steps up with a plan.

"Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan," he was quoted as telling his Knesset colleagues.

That strategy would put Israel at an advantage, said an official with a pro-Israel group who consults with the Obama administration.

"That would be very positive for Israel-U.S. relations," said the official, from one of the groups that favors increased U.S. pressure on Israel.

He noted the recent furor over a leaked memo from Nadav Tamir, an Israeli diplomat in Boston, who alleged that Netanyahu’s refusal to accept a settlement freeze was damaging Israel’s ties with its most critical ally.

The flurry of controversies means the White House is likelier to proceed at a slower, more careful pace, said David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy .

"There’s no value in coming out with full guns if you’re going to fail," said Makovsky, who has intensely lobbied the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in recent weeks to consider a "borders first" solution in which Israel and the Palestinians would mutually agree on borders that would allow Israel to keep some settlements in exchange for land swaps that would amount to 100 percent of the land Israel seized in the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Establishing borders would hand both sides a "win," Makovsky said: Netanyahu’s government would be the first to annex West Bank settlements, and Abbas’ government would show that it won back land through negotiations, quelling claims by Hamas in Gaza that only violence works. It also would help defuse a major sticking point between Jerusalem and Washington, as Israel would not be asked to freeze settlement construction in territory slated for annexation.

Thorny issues such as Jerusalem and the status of refugees would still be on the table, but according to this theory, the momentum created by resolving borders would spur such talks forward.

"It’s like in football," Makovsky said. "If you can’t go 100 yards, you go 70 yards."

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