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Analysts say Obama should go to Israel to resuscitate peace process

The US president has no plans for a trip, but some believe a 'dramatic gesture' may generate momentum for a 'major breakthrough' in peace process.

WASHINGTON // With direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians on hold and US-Israeli relations hitting a prolonged rough patch, a growing chorus of commentators, foreign policy analysts and former government officials are calling for a dramatic step to resuscitate the peace process: a presidential trip to Israel.

Not only would such a visit become a potent symbol of Barack Obama's commitment to moving the peace process forward, they say, it also would give Mr Obama the chance to speak directly to Israelis, clarify his positions and build support among a public that has been sceptical of his engagement with the Muslim world. Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute of Peace, has pitched the idea as a parallel "Jewish world engagement", which, if received well by Israelis, could increase pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to broaden his governing coalition and bring his policies in line with those of the United States.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, and Stephen Solarz, a former New York congressman, urged Mr Obama in a recent opinion article to deliver a speech in the Old City of Jerusalem similar to the one he delivered to the Muslim world in Cairo. "Only a bold and dramatic gesture in a historically significant setting can generate the political and psychological momentum needed for a major breakthrough," the two men wrote in the Washington Post, encouraging Mr Obama to make the visit with a delegation of Arab leaders and representatives of the "Quartet" of Middle East peacemakers: the US, EU, United Nations and Russia.

In Israel, meanwhile, Carlo Strenger, a political commentator, likewise encouraged Mr Obama "to put on the line his considerable rhetorical skills and charm in person, and in Israel". "Chances are high he will also persuade Israelis there is hope we can believe in," he wrote in the Haaretz newspaper, referring to a slogan from Mr Obama's presidential campaign. A sizeable majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, according to most polls, but many are uneasy, or unclear, about how Mr Obama plans to achieve that goal. Only 18 per cent of those surveyed in a recent Haaretz poll said they believe Mr Obama is "friendly" towards Israel and more than a quarter of the respondents said they believed the president is an anti-Semite. Many analysts note, however, that Israeli public opinion is fickle and that such negative impressions of the president could be reversed by a stepped-up outreach effort.

The US president has no plans to visit Israel, a White House spokesman said, pointing to several high-level officials who have made the trip on behalf of the administration, including the Vice President Joe Biden, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, the Middle East special envoy. "They've had great visits and I am sure there will be more travel to come," the spokesman said, adding that Mr Obama has made Middle East peace efforts a centrepiece of his foreign policy.

That Mr Obama has not yet visited Israel is hardly surprising. No US president, in fact, has visited the country during his first year in office. Still, Mr Brumberg, of the US Institute of Peace, called it "remarkable" that Mr Obama, who has engaged in an unprecedented outreach to Muslims - including visits to nearby Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - has yet to announce plans to visit Israel. "I think that parallel effort makes sense," he said. "I think it's eventually something he has to do."

Mr Obama made 10 trips to 21 countries during his first year, far more than any of his predecessors, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent. Administration officials said they expect Mr Obama to focus more on domestic issues in his second year, meaning less foreign travel. A visit to Israel would come with obvious political risks. Failure to meaningfully push the peace process forward, for example, could cost the president a huge amount of political capital back home and, some say, significantly set back the peace process.

Still, Philip Wilcox, the US consul-general in Jerusalem in the 1990s and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said such risks are outweighed by the rewards. "Unless somehow the United States and the international community can persuade Israelis that their government is wrong and they need new policies toward the Palestinians, then a two-state peace is not going to happen," he said.

Meanwhile yesterday, Mrs Clinton said she expected indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks, with Mr Mitchell acting as mediator, to begin next week. sstanek@thenational.ae