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by Jackie Northam, National Public Radio
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Like other presidents before him, Barack Obama made Middle East peace a priority when he took office. He appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as his special envoy to the region.

Four months ago, Mitchell began to mediate indirect negotiations, or "proximity" talks, between Israel and the Palestinians.

Those proximity talks don't appear to have gone anywhere, and now there's a push for direct talks. Israel says that's what it wants, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has yet to agree.

Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the pressure is on the Palestinians to go into direct talks.

"I would say the pressure is probably pretty intense right now, because I think the Obama administration wants to show that there is some sort of progress," Dunne says.

Abbas is resisting direct talks until there is a clearer sense of where Israel stands on issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state. Media reports quoting Palestinian officials said Obama sent a letter to Abbas warning that if he refused to meet directly with Israel, U.S.-Palestinian relations could suffer.

But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was no threat. He says the administration just sees this as the best time to move toward face-to-face negotiations.

"We have made a strong argument to them that you gain leverage inside a direct negotiation, not by trying to set conditions prior to the start of that negotiation," Crowley says.

Dunne says Obama has leverage over Abbas in large part because the Palestinian National Authority relies on U.S. and international aid.

"If he says this is the way you have to go -- you've got to go into direct talks with Netanyahu or else I really can't do much for you -- then they don't have a lot of other good options," Dunne says.

Philip Wilcox, president for the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Abbas may run a political risk by agreeing to direct talks. But Wilcox says there could also be a benefit to such a meeting.

"The advantage to him would be the opportunity to put ... Netanyahu on the spot, to determine if he is serious about peacemaking or not," Wilcox says.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned a reputation for obstructing Clinton administration efforts to broker a peace deal in the 1990s. But Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, says Israel's challenges are different now. And Netanyahu may have learned from his earlier role in peace negotiations.

Kurtzer says the new U.S. push for direct talks may have stemmed from last month's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu.

"Clearly Netanyahu said something that was convincing to the president that there was reason to invest time and effort in this process," Kurtzer says, adding it remains a mystery what was said during that conversation.

Wilcox says the drive to get direct talks under way could be more of a political calculation on Obama's part. Recent tensions that emerged between the U.S. and Israel over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem were beginning to become a political issue for the administration, he says.

"I think the Obama administration is concerned about the November election and the potential loss of campaign contributions or votes from the so-called Jewish right," Wilcox says.

While Palestinians have yet to agree to direct talks, Netanyahu has said the negotiations could begin in mid-August.

Meanwhile, a new poll released Thursday by the Brookings Institution shows opinion of Obama in the Arab world has dropped significantly over the past year. Only 16 percent of those surveyed expressed optimism over Obama's Middle East policy, more than a 30 percent drop from a year ago.

A key factor is the lack of progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. More than half of the nearly 4,000 people surveyed say they don't believe it will happen.

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