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Analysis: US buys time in Mideast, but also woes

UNITED NATIONS — The Obama administration has managed to buy time and may have staved off an embarrassing and politically awkward showdown over Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. It may also have maneuvered itself into a corner.

The U.S. and the rest of the international diplomatic Quartet of Mideast peacemakers endorsed specific timelines for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Friday. The U.S. hopes that new talks aimed at drawing a Palestinian state will persuade the Palestinians to put their separate bid for full statehood recognition at the U.N. on hold.

At the same time, committing to those detailed deadlines raises potentially unrealistic hopes for success and locks the administration into a process that will play out as President Barack Obama fights for re-election.

Formal U.N. meeting on Palestine Wednesday
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Seeking to avert a confrontation over the Palestinian U.N. bid, the Quartet members — the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia — issued a statement urging the Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations and reach an agreement no later than the end of next year. There are interim deadlines for progress on certain issues.

The statement made only passing mention of the Palestinian statehood matter that seized world attention at the annual U.N. General Assembly this week. It also glossed over many of the most difficult issues that the Israelis and Palestinians must face on a tight deadline.

Within 30 days, the Quartet said, the Israelis and Palestinians should agree to an agenda and parameters for peace talks and produce comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months. The Quartet said it then expected the parties to "have made substantial progress" within six months. To encourage or prod the two sides at a particularly difficult moment, it said Russia would host an international conference at some point in the process.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the statement was a "concrete and detailed proposal to begin negotiations without delay or preconditions."

"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties," she said. "Therefore we urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks."

For the U.S. the Quartet statement was a small victory after weeks of disappointment and days of intense negotiations that failed to stop Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from formally seeking statehood recognition for Palestine.

The U.N. route to statehood is vehemently opposed by Israel, which wants a say in how and where the future state is drawn. The United States, as Israel's strongest ally and chief defender at the U.N., has acted as bulwark. That put the Obama administration at odds with the Abbas government it supports and on the wrong side of public opinion among Arab and Muslim publics Obama has courted.

The Quartet statement took note of Abbas' submission to the U.N. Security Council but did not mention it further. The U.S. has vowed to veto the move in the Security Council, which is expected to take up the matter on Monday.

By gaining Russian and European support for a quick resumption in negotiations, the U.S. hopes to have limited the amount of support for the Palestinians in the Security Council, where they will need nine yes votes and no vetoes to win. The administration clearly did not want to be put in the position of being the sole no vote in the Council, especially for a proposition — an independent Palestine — that Obama has himself embraced.

The Quartet statement was radically different from what diplomats had been hoping to draft since it became clear that Abbas would not back down. U.S. and European officials had been trying to craft a statement that would itself outline parameters of the negotiations, including a reference to borders being based on the 1967 lines and affirm Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

Instead, it focused on deadlines and did not mention potential deal-breakers like the Palestinians demand for refugees to return to their ancestral lands or the status of Jerusalem, which each side claims as a capital.

The final statement repeats the goal of having a deal done in one year's time that Obama proposed in 2010. Obama had wanted a peace deal by September but was forced to retreat when talks broke down after less than one month and never resumed. The hopes raised by a yearlong deadline may be dashed in a similar fashion.

Yet more problematic could be that the envisioned timeline places what will be the most difficult points of contention on the negotiating table in the middle of the 2012 presidential election, a time when Obama himself probably will be focused on domestic concerns like the economy and vulnerable to charges from Republicans that he is being anti-Israel if he seeks to press the Jewish state to make compromises. Bio: Matthew Lee covers U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.

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