Skip to main content

Obama envoy sees 'window of opportunity' for Mideast peace

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
Click to play
Views on Middle East talks
  • Former Sen. George Mitchell is the special envoy for Middle East Peace
  • He says negotiations this week offer a "window of opportunity"
  • President Obama will host leaders from the region during two days of negotiations
  • Officials are hopeful that these talks will lead to a second round of talks

Washington (CNN) -- Fresh off a major speech on Iraq, President Obama on Wednesday turns his attention to the extremely difficult task of trying to broker Mideast peace, with his special envoy declaring there is a "window of opportunity" for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to achieve an historic deal within one year.

Former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for Middle East Peace, told reporters at a briefing Tuesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are paying close attention to polls in the Mideast which show fear there will be many more years of intense conflict if negotiations over a two-state solution collapse.

"Now, I believe that it is an awareness of these and other realities by the two leaders and their leadership that there is a window of opportunity," said Mitchell. "A moment in time within which there remains the possibility of achieving the two-state solution, which is so essential to comprehensive peace in the region, that -- difficult as it may be for both leaders, and we recognize that difficulty for both of them -- the alternatives for them and the members of their societies pose far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future."

Several top officials close to the negotiations said it is hard to be optimistic about a peace deal right now, but hope springs eternal because at least the Israelis and Palestinians are meeting again after a year and a half of stalled talks. And Obama is getting more personally invested in the process this week because achieving a deal is one of his administration's top foreign policy goals.

The officials close to the negotiations say that nobody directly involved in the talks is expecting an actual peace treaty to be brokered this week, over the course of two days of negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas. They are joined by other key players from the region coming to Washington to move the talks along, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Instead, officials are hopeful that by the end of the talks on Thursday there will be a statement revealing that a second round of talks will begin in the near future, possibly in the Middle East in order to build international confidence that they're able to move the talks along without being too dependent on the United States to keep pushing it.

"The biggest breakthrough would be an agenda [emerging Thursday] for a second round of meetings soon to move forward," said one top official actively engaged in the talks.

Mitchell is acutely aware of the need for the United States to walk a careful balance of staying engaged in the talks but not overwhelming or overshadowing the Israelis and Palestinians.

The envoy said there needs to be "active and sustained United States participation so that we are not on some distant sideline cheering the parties on without active participation, but at the same time we recognize that this is a bilateral negotiation, and in the end the parties must make this decision by and for themselves."

There are all kinds of potential roadblocks to a deal, including the fact that the Palestinian view of having its own state includes getting back the land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, and the Palestinians want East Jerusalem to serve as its capital. Netanyahu has expressed openness about a Palestinian state in theory, but that support would come with heavy conditions, including a desire to not let the Palestinians take East Jerusalem.

Another big impediment could come from the fact that Israel's 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank will expire September 26. Abbas has declared that the peace negotiations will end if Israel does not extend the freeze, while Netanyahu is under great pressure within his country to end the moratorium.

"Our position on settlements is well known, and it remains unchanged," Mitchell said Tuesday when asked about the moratorium. "We've always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations."

Mitchell also declared that Obama has taken a very active, personal role in trying to broker a deal in public as well as in private and said he "will continue to be fully and actively a participant in the process, as necessary. He has many, many important obligations, but he places a high priority on comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

That personal engagement intensifies Wednesday as Obama holds a series of one-on-one meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, King Abdullah, as well as President Mubarak. After that series of meetings, Obama will make a public statement without the other leaders at the White House.

Later on Wednesday, Obama will make another public statement at the White House but this time he is expected to be joined by the four leaders. Then the five of them will have a private dinner at the White House, joined by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now serves as the Quartet representative trying to help make progress toward Mideast peace. The Middle East Quartet consists of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

Then on Thursday, Obama will pull back from a direct role and have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convene a meeting at the State Department between Netanyahu, Abbas, and their delegations. Follow that meeting, Mitchell is expected to make a public statement revealing where the negotiations stand.

Mitchell reiterated that the president is confident, based in part by public and private statements from both Netanyahu and Abbas, that a final deal could be achieved within one year. "We think it is realistic," he said. "We think it can be done."

Mitchell added, "It's very important to create a sense that this has a definite concluding point," he said. "And we believe that it can be done and we will do everything possible, with perseverance and patience and determination, to see that it is done."