Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
An Ultra Orthodox Jewish boy walks past a menorah at the entrance to his house, after candles were lit on the last night of Hanukkah, in Jerusalem on Wednesday. The Jewish festival of light, an eight-day commemoration of the Jewish uprising in the second century B.C. against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to put statues of Greek gods in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, started last Wednesday.
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updated 12/8/2010 6:07:10 PM ET 2010-12-08T23:07:10

EDITOR'S NOTE - Robert Burns has reported on national security and military affairs since 1990. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

If the Mideast peace process is not dead, it is at least gasping for air.

As Washington searches for a new approach to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, it has become clear the path to peace that President Barack Obama has pursued from the outset of his administration has ended in failure. As have previous U.S. efforts.

The Israelis have consistently rejected Obama's key demand: Stop all construction in Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for their own independent state. The administration this week let it be known it has given up on that approach. The standoff has left Palestinian leaders with grave doubts that Obama has what it takes to push both sides to a final peace settlement.

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    1. U.S. drops demand for Israel settlement freeze

"The odds confronting any administration would be great, but the administration had harder odds because they defined an impossible objective - a comprehensive settlement freeze," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peacemaker who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.

"So 20 months in, the administration finds itself with no freeze, no negotiations and little prospects of an agreement," he said.

Few are suggesting Obama has given up on peace, but there is growing worry that frustration in the region over the latest setback could trigger a new outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinians are suggesting they may try to establish a state without Israel's agreement. Argentina and Brazil have recognized "Palestine" in recent days, but the U.S. has opposed this approach, arguing that the only way to get an enduring peace is to negotiate terms for a sovereign Palestinian state aside a secure Israel.

This, they argue, could lead to broader Mideast stability.

The breakdown of Obama's effort comes as the administration struggles on a number of fronts at home and abroad. There is slow progress in the Afghanistan war, increasing friction with China and the embarrassing deluge of confidential diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website. November's elections at home left Obama facing a new Republican majority in the U.S. House.

In a speech Friday evening, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to offer, at least in general terms, a peek at how the administration hopes to get the peace process back on track.

One possibility is renewing indirect talks between the sides, an effort that presumably would be led by former Sen. George Mitchell, the administration's special envoy. In such talks the U.S. might focus mainly on two of the toughest issues: the borders of a future Palestinian state, and security assurances for Israel once it ends its occupation of the West Bank.

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State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday that Mitchell plans to return to the Middle East next week for consultations with both parties and others in the region. And another official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a private contact, said Clinton talked by telephone Wednesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Another possibility is that the administration will lay out its own vision of what a final settlement should look like. Until now Obama has insisted that Israelis and Palestinians craft their own deal, with the U.S. in a support role.

Whatever the next step, it appears unlikely Obama will simply walk away from the peace effort.

Crowley said the administration still believes it can reach at least the outline of a final peace settlement by September — a goal Obama announced when he brought leaders of both parties to Washington three months ago.

"If you think this means the Obama administration doesn't care about promoting Arab-Israeli peace any more, I think that's a deep misreading of what's going on," said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators may visit Washington next week for consultations, but they apparently will not be talking about the issue Obama insisted be worked out as a condition for direction negotiations: a full stop to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The U.S. has conceded that halt isn't about to happen.

Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu last year did agree to a 10-month slowdown on settlement construction. However, it took Obama nine more months to persuade the Palestinians to open peace talks.

By the time negotiations got under way in early September, the Israeli settlement freeze was set to expire. Three weeks later talks collapsed, and the U.S. had no apparent plan in place either to persuade Israel to extend the settlement freeze or to prevent the Palestinians from walking out.

In November, Netanyahu received from Clinton a list of guarantees, including 20 next-generation stealth fighter planes and U.S. pledges to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, according to Israeli officials. In exchange, Israel was asked to renew the expired limits on settlement construction.

Days later, the deal snagged after members of Netanyahu's Cabinet demanded a written pledge from the U.S. that the moratorium would exclude east Jerusalem. Such a pledge never materialized.

"One of the important questions is: Does this convey the president's weakness in being unable to move the Israelis even on something relatively modest? Or does it show the president's toughness — that if the Israelis won't take a deal the president will take it off the table," Alterman said.

"We're going to have to see what the follow-up is. This strikes me as being in mid-pirouette."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Quest for Mideast peace: An overview

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a bid to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a threatened U.S. veto. U.S. President Barack Obama says the path to peace in the Middle East is through resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The last round of such talks broke down in 2010 with the two sides far apart on key issues. Click on the links on the left to find out more.

    Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, PBS, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations

  • Jerusalem

    Image: Jerusalem's Old City
    AP file

    Israel claims the entire city as its own undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, but says Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.

  • West Bank

    Image: Israeli soldiers patrol the old city in the West Bank city of Hebron
    Abed Al Hashlamoun  /  EPA

    One of the disputed Israeli-occupied territories with areas of limited Palestinian self-government. The scores of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank have long been a sore point in Mideast peacemaking. Israel began settling the territory soon after capturing it along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

    The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to roughly 500,000 Israelis interspersed among 2.6 million Palestinians, are gobbling up land they claim for a future state. The international community considers them illegal, and President Barack Obama has been an outspoken critic.

    The West Bank encompasses important cities such as East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It would make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Expansion of Jewish housing makes those borders ever more complicated.

    A 10-month slowdown in West Bank housing construction by Israel expired in late September, and the Israeli government did not extend it despite international pleas to do so. That contributed to a breakdown in the last round of peace talks between the two sides.

  • Gaza Strip

    Image: Gaza Strip
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    This 25-mile-long by 7-mile-wide strip of land lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is home to about 1.6 million Palestinians and is under firm control by the militant Hamas movement. Hamas is opposed not only to the peace talks but also to Israel's very existence.

    Gaza, which is also supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state, has been the staging point for rocket attacks on Israel, which has responded with a economically crippling naval blockade of the territory.

    Most of Gaza's residents are from refugee families that fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. Of these, most live in impoverished refugee camps to which the United Nations delivers basic services such as health and education.

    Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas seized control of Gaza the following year, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

    Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers say they will never give Israel what it most wants from a Middle East deal, which is recognition of the Jewish state and a legitimate place in the region. They see their Fatah rivals in the West Bank, who have been open to negotiating with Israel, as appeasers and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

  • Golan Heights

    A fortified and strategically important hilly area on the border of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until 1967, when they were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

    Syria has said it wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. A deal with Syria would also involve the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territory.

  • Egypt

    Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel. Despite Arab world pressure, Cairo has adhered at least to the formal requirements of its peace treaty.

    Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had played the role of mediator at several very critical junctures in the peace process with the Palestinians and was a key U.S. ally in the tumultuous region. The U.S. underwrites much of Egypt's foreign aid.

    But more recently, Israel's relations with Egypt have deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and forced Israeli diplomats to be evacuated.

  • Syria

    Damascus is one of Israel's harshest opponents, and supports a number of armed groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Israel has condemned Syria for its support for the Hamas Islamic government in Gaza.

    Tensions between Syria and Israel rose in 2010 after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a foreign terrorist organization. Israel has warned that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself.

    Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups based in Syria have rejected any move by the Palestinian Authority to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

    Syria has accused Israel of posing a threat to the world with its "huge military nuclear arsenal."

    Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has found itself under international pressure recently, condemned by leaders around the world for a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that began in mid-March 2011.

  • Jordan

    Jordan is considered a very important country in resolving the Mideast conflict due to its proximity to Israel and the occupied territories and its large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Jordan, along with Egypt, are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan is also a strategic ally to the United States in the Middle East.

    Amman has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians.

    Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted as saying in September 2011 that Jordan and the Palestinians were now in a stronger position than Israel, telling a group of academics that the Arab uprisings had weakened Israel's position.

  • Lebanon

    Lebanon, a small Middle East sovereign state, has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.

    Dozens of private armies grew out of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still flourish 20 years later.

    A period of relative stability was shattered in 2006 when an all-out 34-day war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and Israel caused significant civilian deaths and heavy damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure.

    Hezbollah is a central player in Lebanon. Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state.

    The power balance worries the U.S. and Israel, Hezbollah's sworn enemy.

    U.N. peacekeepers have been charged with monitoring Lebanon's southern border with Israel since 1978. The force was boosted to almost 12,000 troops after Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought in 2006.

Interactive: A history of talks

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