JERUSALEM - The administration has decided to explore whether a long-abandoned initiative could become the basis for a regional agreement between Israel and its neighbors, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry due to arrive in the region over the weekend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been conferring with other Arab leaders on the viability of the plan, which calls for a normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in exchange for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that President Barack Obama raised the possibility of using the Arab Peace Initiative, as the plan was known, as a framework for an agreement when he was in the region last month.
"It was raised directly by Obama during his visit and during his closed-door discussion with the Palestinian leadership," said a senior Palestinian official directly involved in the talks. "It was made clear to the Palestinian leadership that this would be the new direction of U.S. diplomacy in the region."
The official said that White House officials laid the groundwork for the renewal of the Arab peace initiative two weeks before Obama's visit to Israel and the West Bank when they spoke with Palestinian negotiators in Washington.
"They were told then that this would be the focus and that it had great potential," said the Palestinian official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. He said Obama, Kerry, Abbas and Palestinian negotiators Mohammed Shtayeh and Saeb Erekat discussed the topic for several hours during the president's visit to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.
"He asked us during that time not to take any unilateral steps in the U.N. or moves that would anger Israel," the Palestinian official said, referring to Obama. He added that it was his understanding that Israel had agreed not to announce any new settlement construction projects for eight weeks.
"Kerry asked for a quiet time to give the new diplomacy a chance," the official said.
Kerry will spend time in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Sunday and Monday before he travels to London for the G-8 summit, and then on to China, South Korea and Japan.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted at a briefing for reporters this week that the secretary's frequent travel to the Middle East - this will be his third trip in less than a month - wasn't a sign of new shuttle diplomacy but rather his own communications style, and she played down the significance of Kerry's visit, reiterating that he wasn't going to be "putting down a plan."
"The president, with his trip, committed very strongly that if the parties are ready to move, we are ready to help them, and that he wants Secretary Kerry to explore what's possible," Nuland said. "But, again, we're not at the stage of knowing what's possible."
Adding to speculation that Obama is pressing ahead on a Middle East peace effort is a series of White House visits over the next month by key regional leaders, including the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, the emir of Qatar, the king of Jordan and the president of Turkey.