WASHINGTON — The first Middle East peace talks in years are underway a few blocks from the White House, but President Barack Obama is conspicuously keeping his distance.
Burned by a failed peace effort in his first term, Obama has largely ceded this latest attempt to forge an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians to Secretary of State John Kerry. The move marks a rare power shift for an administration that prefers to centralize foreign policy decisions within the White House.
Obama’s hands-off approach is in part a vote of confidence in Kerry, who has embraced the vexing and emotional issue with gusto since joining the administration earlier this year. It also signals a calculation by the White House that direct presidential intervention is best reserved for the final stages of negotiations — if the process ever reaches that point — or for moments of tension when Obama might be called upon to keep the talks afloat.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents, backed the White House’s approach.
“You don’t want to waste presidential capital,” said Miller, now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “But in the end, Obama is going to have to own this if it’s going to succeed.”
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arrived in Washington on Monday to open the talks, the first major effort since negotiations broke down in 2008. An attempt to reopen talks in 2010 collapsed almost immediately. The new round, taking place at the State Department and continuing today, is aimed in part at working out plans for how the talks should proceed in the coming months.
Officials said the parties have agreed to negotiate for at least nine months.
In a written statement Monday, Obama said the talks marked a “promising step forward,” but warned that “hard work and hard choices remain ahead.” White House officials said there currently were no plans for the president to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators while they were in town, but left open the possibility that he could later in the week.
Like Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are not directly involved in this first round. But both have been deeply engaged in the process in recent months, meeting frequently with Kerry.
The secretary and other administration officials tried Monday to tamp down any suggestion that Obama was detached from the peace talk process. They repeatedly cast the revived negotiations as a direct result of Obama’s trip to Israel and the West Bank earlier this year.
“Without his commitment, without his conversations there and without his engagement in this initiative, we would not be here today,” Kerry said Monday before heading to the White House to brief the president on the first round of talks.
Yet Obama, unlike predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, has waited on the sidelines much of his administration and not made negotiations a top priority. He long has expressed doubts about how much leverage the U.S. has in bringing the parties to the negotiating table and has warned that peace cannot be achieved if American officials want it more than the Israelis and Palestinians.
The president’s own troubled attempt to jumpstart peace talks in his first term has also colored his views.
Obama came into office eager to put a new face on the U.S. relationship with the Middle East. But he quickly angered Israeli leaders by calling for an end to settlement building and appearing to misunderstand the Jewish people’s historic ties to the region during a 2009 speech in Cairo.
Tensions with Israel also deepened when its government announced a new round of settlements in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
Still, in the fall of 2010, Obama was able to cobble together a new round of negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas. All three leaders gathered at the White House and announced the talks with great fanfare. But the effort fell apart within days.
Dennis Ross, who served as one of Obama’s negotiators at the time, said that failed effort was a good lesson for the White House.
“If you raise expectations too soon, you actually make it less likely that you achieve anything,” said Ross, who left the administration in 2011.
Following the collapse of the 2010 talks, Obama expended little effort on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A series of more urgent concerns in the Middle East quickly intervened, including the Arab Spring democracy protests and the Syrian civil war. The president’s 2012 re-election campaign also consumed much of his administration’s attention, and his relationship with Netanyahu deteriorated further when the Israeli leader all but endorsed Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney.
So it came as a surprise to many when Obama announced earlier this year that he planned to make his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as president. His advisers set low expectations for the highly-anticipated trip and made clear even then that Kerry, not Obama, would be the driving force in getting the two sides back to the negotiating table.