Analysis: In Mideast, Obama unveils talent for conflict mediation

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AMMAN, Jordan -- There is little doubt that President Barack Obama can deliver a memorable speech, as he did in Jerusalem last week about the need for peace. The big surprise on his trip to Israel and Jordan, which ended in Jordan's capital Saturday, is that he can also twist arms.

His success in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to apologize to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, healing a rift between the countries, is the kind of person-to-person dealmaking that is supposed to be the president's weak suit.

But Mr. Obama kept prodding Mr. Netanyahu, senior advisers said, raising the importance of a makeup phone call every day he was in Jerusalem. He also worked on Mr. Erdogan, a prickly politician with whom Mr, Obama has cultivated a relationship since entering office.

By the time they agreed to talk, Mr. Obama had fully embraced the role of Middle East mediator, warming up Mr. Erdogan before handing the phone to Mr. Netanyahu, who expressed regret for the deadly actions by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was trying to breach a blockade of Gaza.

For Middle East analysts, the question is whether Mr. Obama will bring the same doggedness and personal involvement to pursuing the peace between Israelis and Palestinians that he so fervently extolled in his address to young Israelis on Thursday.

"Obama was so effective in lobbying for peace that he has managed to raise expectations sky high that he's actually going to do something about it," said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "After all, if he really believes peace is possible, then as president of the United States he surely has to do something about it."

Negotiating an accord to end one of the world's most intractable conflicts is very different from talking two antagonistic leaders into getting on the phone with each other. Success in the Middle East has eluded even presidents who were renowned for their tenacity and ability to bring together adversaries.

Mr. Obama still seems more inclined to subcontract the work to his new secretary of state, John Kerry. Asked about a peace deal at a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Mr. Obama said: "I can't guarantee that that's going to happen. What I can guarantee is we'll make the effort. What I can guarantee is that Secretary Kerry is going to be spending a good deal of time in discussions with the parties."

On Saturday, Mr. Kerry wasted no time. While Mr. Obama treated himself to a tour of the ancient city of Petra before flying to Washington, Mr. Kerry was back in Amman, preparing for a meeting with the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, before heading to Israel to have dinner with Mr. Netanyahu.

The next step, a senior administration official said, is to devise measures that both sides could take to restore trust and allow them to enter a negotiation over the core issues, like the borders of a Palestinian state. This could include the release of prisoners or an Israeli agreement to slow down settlement building, even if it does not stop altogether.

In short, it is the tedious, grinding work of diplomacy -- a task for which Mr. Kerry, administration officials say, is eminently well suited.

world


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