When President Obama hosts leaders from the Middle East on Wednesday at the White House, his administration will simultaneously be looking for a way to move into the future, while trying not to repeat the past. But the merry-go-round feeling that hangs over the issue of peace in the Middle East, could force Obama to use some political capital he would rather save for 2010 mid-term elections and perhaps for his own 2012 re-election bid.
"He's putting his neck on the line. Prospects for success are not great, and he could be setting himself up for failure," says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Presidents who made progress on the issues (Carter and Bush 41) have expended political capital domestically. Making progress on this issue requires exerting a great deal of influence."
In the 30 years plus since the historic 1978 Camp David Accords, when Egypt became the first Arab nation to recognize the state of Israel, many American presidents have tried and failed to move all parties towards the achievement of peace in the Middle East. "This issue has never brought political value and credit to any American president," says Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute. "The ones who engage in it usually get hammered." Miller points specifically to Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Jimmy Carter and James Baker, who Miller worked with during negotiations under President George H.W. Bush when Baker served in the State Department.
The constant wheel spinning on peace talks is not new. While the process began with President Carter, many have tried and failed to get the two sides to agree on a variety of issues. The last major conference on the Middle East was at Annapolis in November 2007, held near the end of the Bush administration, and was a push to press the two governments to agree to the idea of a "two state solution." While some say it was a last ditch effort by President Bush to engage the two sides, those who were at the conference say the complicated issues from before Annapolis and after remain the same.
"There were many complicated circumstances that led up to the Annapolis conference, and there have been many complications since; therefore, it seems like we're where we were and where we have been for years," says former Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino. "It is impossible to determine when there might be a breakthrough, though for everyone's sake I hope there is one."
Even if history isn't on his side, the president and his administration are making a concerted effort at talks, and believe both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are focused on getting something accomplished in Washington. "I think each side has had to take some important steps to get us to this point, which leads the administration to believe that the sides are indeed serious about a comprehensive peace," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday at the White House. But even Gibbs admits, the history of the talks is hard to shake. "That is not to say that this is going to be in any way easy. This has been tried over the past more than three decades a number of times, and I think it's going to take some time to get through the issues that have stood in the way of that for those three decades."
While experts say there are clearly incremental changes over the last 30 years, the final issues that remain to be solved have not changed over time and unless the Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) agree to come to some resolution, the Obama administration won't have anything to show for the talks. Already, it appears Netanyahu is prepared to come to an agreement - or at least prepared to start talking. "I am not naïve. I recognize the obstacles, but I want to give it all the time it requires. I hope to find a courageous partner on the other side, such as Anwar Sadat was to Menachem Begin," Netanyahu said before leaving Israel on Monday. It was Sadat and Begin who were the leaders of their respective nations for the 1978 Camp David Accords.
The four major issues the two sides have been unable to agree on include: refugees, the status of Jerusalem, borders of the two nations and security. However, the talks at the White House come as a major deadline approaches in Israel over a building moratorium, an issue that overshadows the other points of contention. The current moratorium that stopped Israel from building any new settlements expires September 26. Some warn the September deadline is a looming issue - something that should be used as measuring stick for success at the meetings, rather than looking at the larger issues. "We're not going to see anything dramatic come out of this. If negotiations take place beyond September 26th, then they've taken off and this is going somewhere, " Danin says. "Hit a dead end and they will not have succeeded."
Former Senator George Mitchell, the Special Envoy to the Middle East told reporters that in the past four months the administration felt the time was ripe to begin direct discussions, with the president directly involved. But Mitchell would not promise direct involvement on each and every meeting and issue. "The United States will play an active and sustained role in the process. That does not mean that the United States must be physically represented in every single meeting. We recognize the value of direct, bilateral discussion between the parties and, in fact, will encourage that between the two leaders on a regular basis."
But experts caution that if the talks fail, it will all be on Obama's shoulders and warns the administration to be careful. "If this collapses, purely or un-purely, it will be viewed as his premature effort to bring the parties together when they were not ready. And people want to know why they had them come together when they were not ready," says Miller. "They pushed because they wanted to avoid a crisis over the moratorium. He has to be cagey on how he does this. We're not going to get an agreement on this any time soon."