Steven Stanek
The National
May 29, 2009 - 12:00am

President Barack Obama was scheduled yesterday to host the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, for a round of talks at the White House, hoping to prop up a much weakened leader the United States views as crucial to implementing the two-state solution.

The visit by Mr Abbas comes at a critical time, in the wake of Mr Obama’s sit-down last week with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and as the US president attempts to revitalise a peace process he sees as essential to improving stability in the broader Middle East.

Next week, Mr Obama will meet with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo, where he will deliver a major speech to the Muslim world. Mr Obama is also scheduled to stop in Saudi Arabia, which has been leading the Arab Peace Initiative.

Even as Mr Obama makes the peace process a priority, however, new uncertainties have arisen in the decades-old conflict. Mr Netanyahu has so far declined to endorse the US-backed two-state solution and he has resisted numerous calls by the Obama administration to freeze settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Abbas, who has long fought settlement expansion in his quest for Palestinian sovereignty, was expected to focus on the issue during his meeting with Mr Obama.
On Wednesday, Mr Abbas met for a working dinner with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state. Prior to the meeting, Mrs Clinton firmly reiterated the administration’s zero-tolerance policy on settlements.

Mr Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” said Mrs Clinton in remarks to reporters at the state department.

“That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly … We intend to press that point.”

A concession by Israel on settlements could bolster Mr Abbas’s stature at a time when he has been largely marginalised both by Israel’s policies and by Hamas.

“If the administration decides it’s going to hold Israel’s feet to the fire on this – and I think there is a good indication that they are – it’s going to give [Mr Abbas] a fair amount of credibility,” said Steven Cook, an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Mr Abbas’s grip on power has become increasingly tenuous since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving his Fatah party in control of only the West Bank.

His credibility was further damaged by Israel’s Gaza offensive in December and by a failure to secure tangible gains through negotiations.

Mr Abbas’s four-year term expired in January, though his supporters contend that he can legally remain in office for another year. Next January, he faces a new election, which recent polls suggest he and his Fatah movement may lose to Hamas.

There are some signs that the increased pressure on settlements is having an effect.
Mr Netanyahu and Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, have indicated that they will tear down 22 outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. A few additional outposts have been dismantled over the past two weeks, though temporary structures have already been rebuilt on some sites, according to the Israeli media.

Though Mr Netanyahu said he will not allow the construction of new settlements, he maintains Israel’s right to build onto existing ones to accommodate population growth.
About 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements that are considered illegal under international law.

Mr Barak is scheduled to visit Washington next week for meetings with Robert Gates, the defence secretary; George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East; and Mrs Clinton.

Even if the issue of settlements is resolved, some analysts, such as Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, say there is little hope for genuine progress unless there is a fundamental change in the peace process and those involved in it.

She says, for example, that negotiations can be meaningfully revived only if the rival Palestinian factions agree on a reconciliation government.

“I don’t think there is any chance whatsoever for the peace process restarting in the same format in which it was taking place,” she said, calling Mr Abbas’s visit to Washington “largely symbolic”.

“I’m convinced unless there is a new element injected into the process these negotiations cannot move forward.”


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