Washington Watch: Turn, turn, turn
The past week may go down as a turning point in the search for Middle East peace - a turn in the wrong direction. Efforts to relaunch the peace process encountered serious setbacks, and while some may be gloating, the result is not likely to be a breathing spell while everyone figures out where to go next, but a dangerous period of uncertainty and instability.While US peace envoy George Mitchell was spending another frustrating week in the region in another failed effort to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table, President Barack Obama admitted his year-old effort to restart the talks has been a failure. Neither side, he concluded, is ready to make the difficult decisions necessary to move toward peace. It was a "well, duh," moment as the president acknowledged what has been obvious to everyone else for the past year."We overestimated our ability to persuade them... [to] start engaging in meaningful conversation... If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high," Obama said.Israeli papers reported the Prime Minister's Office was "gloating" over the setback, confidently predicting the president would have no choice but to put the issue on the back burner for a while. That may please Israeli rejectionists, but it could be dangerous; there is no such thing as standing still in the Middle East.One big question is what a downgrading of the peace process will mean for already-strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem. There are many ways an administration can express displeasure: votes at the UN, denying access to the latest military technology, less intelligence sharing or high-level exchanges and limiting the extent of strategic cooperation are a few.Putting the peace process on hold until everyone is ready can be very risky. "A deadlock will lead to another round of violence that will serve Hamas," predicted Defense Minister Ehud Barak.Mitchell said the president remains "committed" to the peace process, but "engaged" may be another matter. Since the top leaders can't get together, Mitchell has proposed low-level talks; observers in Jerusalem suggest the issues will also be low-level.Obama said Israel showed some willingness to modify its policies but was not ready for the "bold gestures" he considered essential. More rigid were the Palestinians, and Mitchell warned PA President Mahmoud Abbas he must be more flexible if he wants talks to resume and expects US help in the process.