Abbas Visit Comes as US-Israeli Tensions Mount

U.S. President Barack Obama’s first meeting on Thursday with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was less remarkable for the actual talks between the two leaders than it was for the changed Washington political climate in which it took place.

The meeting between Obama and Abbas seemed to contain no real surprises, as both leaders reiterated their past calls for a two-state solution. The pro forma tone of Abbas’ visit reflected a political reality in which the PA is seen to be largely sidelined, and far more attention is being paid to the interactions between the U.S. and Israeli governments.

But as Abbas made his visit, the clash between Obama and Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heating up. This week saw the Obama administration call on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank in language that was unprecedented for its bluntness, while the Netanyahu government continued to reject the idea of a settlement freeze.

Perhaps even more significantly, prominent Israel supporters in the U.S. Congress – traditionally a bastion of support for right-wing Israeli governments – appear to be siding with the Obama administration.

"The Israelis are looking at their best friends in Congress, who are Democrats, and they’re supporting their Democratic president," M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, told IPS.

"We are a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure," Obama told reporters after meeting privately with Abbas. "It is our belief that the best way to achieve that is to create the conditions on the ground and set the stage for a Palestinian state as well."

Several times, Obama noted that progress toward a Palestinian state was in the U.S.’ interests as well as Israel’s, and he cautioned that "time was of the essence" to implement a two-state solution.

For his part, Abbas reiterated the PA’s willingness to fulfill its obligations under the 2002 "road map" for peace, and stated that he had shared ideas for peace with Obama that were based on the road map and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

He also expressed interest in resuming peace negotiations with Israel, but reaffirmed that these negotiations must be aimed at implementing a two-state solution, which Netanyahu has refused to endorse.

At the moment, Abbas is widely seen as a marginalized figure, dependent on the U.S. and Israel to grant concessions that would build up his diminished credibility among the Palestinians.

"The best news for the Palestinians was that little was asked of them, and the worst news for the Palestinians was that little was asked of them," former U.S. peace negotiator Robert Malley told IPS. "It’s not necessarily a good sign if you’re the party that isn’t being asked to do anything."

On the eve of Abbas’ visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions."

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that they are willing to evacuate outposts – improvised settlements that both sides agree are illegal – but refuse to curb expansion due to "natural growth." Since all settlement expansion in recent years has been ascribed to "natural growth," critics say that such an exception would strip a settlement freeze of any force.

While U.S. presidents have for decades called for an end to settlement activity, Clinton’s statement was notable for its blunt tone. An anonymous confidant of Netanyahu told Foreign Policy‘s Laura Rozen that the right-wing prime minister had reacted to Clinton statement by asking, "What the hell do they want from me?"

On Wednesday, Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev said that "normal life" – a euphemism for natural growth construction – would continue while negotiations with the Palestinians were ongoing.

Many experts are also noting a changed tone on Capitol Hill, as congressmen with a reputation as pro-Israel hawks – many with close ties to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby group – are showing a new willingness to press the Netanyahu government.

Last week, a five-person congressional delegation headed by Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Jewish Democrat from New York known as a fervent supporter of Israel, visited Jerusalem and expressed concern over settlement expansion and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported.

"Obama is choosing to take on the Likud government on the issue that’s the soft underbelly of the Israeli position – settlements," Rosenberg told IPS. "Most Jewish groups don’t support them, nor do most Jewish members of Congress."

Nevertheless, Rosenberg said that he does not expect to see a full-blown clash between Obama and Netanyahu.

"A head to head clash that’s played out in the newspapers and blogs is not in anyone’s interest," he said. "Still, I would expect that if Netanyahu does not start playing ball, the Israelis will sense a chill, even if we don’t pick it up here."

While Obama appears to enjoy strong support from Congress and from the U.S. Jewish community at the moment, it remains unclear whether he would be willing to flex political muscle against Netanyahu if the Israeli prime minister remains uncooperative.

At Thursday’s event with Abbas, Obama was asked how he might respond if Israel didn’t end its settlement activities.

"I think it’s important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," said Obama, adding, "And that conversation [with Netanyahu] only took place last week."

"If they do nothing in response to Israeli recalcitrance, they’re going to be seen as feckless," former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told IPS. "But if they go to war with the Israelis, it’s going to have a whole bunch of other consequences."

"Unless these statements [against settlement construction] are followed by decisive action – perhaps to limit American subsidies to Israel – there’s no reason to believe the lip service that failed in the past will suddenly be more effective," wrote Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada Web site, in the Nation magazine.

A U.S. move to cut aid to Israel might cause a showdown similar to the one that occurred in the early 1990s, when President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel unless settlement construction ended.

Bush and Baker ultimately backed down, and U.S presidents since then have been reluctant to risk a repeat of that clash.

In any case, the current skirmishing between the U.S. and Israeli governments has left Abbas on the sidelines.

Most experts argue that a genuine settlement freeze would bolster the standing of Abbas and his Fatah faction, who are facing a crisis of legitimacy among the Palestinians, by demonstrating their ability to secure concrete concessions from Israel.

The possibility of a unity government between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, remains a pressing issue, but there has been little progress toward this goal in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Obama praised Abbas for refusing to form a unity government with Hamas until it agrees to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and abide by all previous peace agreements.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.