Barbara Ferguson
Arab News
July 12, 2010 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama assured Mahmoud Abbas by telephone on Friday of his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The call followed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's White House meeting with Obama on Tuesday, in which the two leaders discussed a number of issues including Israel's stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Dr. Ziad Asali, the president and founder of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, said it is important to keep focused on the efforts the president is making in outreach to both Palestinians and Israelis.

"Some people are critical of this week's meeting between the two leaders; but what we see, as we always must, are opportunities to move the ball forward to push for creation of a genuine two state solution," said Asali.

He said the president has been trying to move quickly from the current proximity talks to face-to-face negotiations.

"The news from the White House underscores the kind of commitment that the US and the president are making to encourage president Abbas to join in with direct negotiations in order to resume serious negotiations about final status issues," Asali told Arab News.

But first, Obama had to mend his relations with Netanyahu, which have been tense for the several months.

"There were two purposes for Netanyahu's visit, one was the public relations aspect and the other was substance," said Asali.

"The public relations aspect was well planned and executed - and a clear signal was sent that Israel and the US are strategic and solid friends and also that the president of the United States and prime minister of Israel are very good friends who trust each other and can very easily work together. They simply ignored or even denied that there was a problem in the past," said the president of the American Task Force for Palestine.

"A warm welcome was extended to Netanyahu by inviting him to stay at the Blair House, by having a working lunch at the White House and allowing extensive photo opportunities and exposure to the media.

"The PR strategy worked very well and the message was well delivered to the world."

As for the naysayers, he insisted that "it is a mistake to call the Obama-Netanyahu meeting a charade by only emphasizing the public relations aspect of it, because the US and Israel are strategic allies and the US is the only country that has leverage on Israel to deliver a negotiated settlement and it is important for the US to continue being engaged."

The second item, substance, was more difficult, said Asali, "Because the basic problems did not go away."

Asali, who twice has served as a member of the US Presidential delegation to the Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem, said several diplomatic decisions were made ahead of the meeting, specifically regarding Gaza, which included decreasing the impact of the siege.

"This decision was wisely chosen to be delivered before the meeting - so it would not look like Obama had prevailed upon Netanyahu to do these things," said Asali.

Beyond that, there is the issue of Palestinians and Israelis moving from indirect to direct negotiations, which the president has begun earlier pushing through his conversation with Abbas, and by hosting Saudi King Abdullah to the White House last week and in his meeting with Netanyahu.

It was clear that there was some discussion about the steps that needed to be taken before the Palestinians return to negotiations, said Asali, "But there was no date, only the implications that 'things will happen' within the next few weeks. All these steps deal with security, quality of life and economics.

Asali, who has testified before the House and Senate on a variety of Palestinian issues and regularly meets with White House officials, believes that "more engaged and meaningful exchanges between the three parties" will soon start up. "We expect that the tradeoff between direct negotiations and freezing settlements is likely to occur before the September settlement deadline."

He emphasized the need for things to get moving quickly, "considering the politics of the timing by September in Israel and Palestine."

Asali is anxious about the future: "It is important to remember that the status quo is a downhill slope and if we do not arrive at a resolution that ends the occupation and the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel there will be a larger conflict closer to a holy war and much wider in its scope across the region and beyond."

"For those who want to throw up their hands in despair and not do anything - they need to be reminded that there's much work that needs to be done in order to prevent the situation from becoming much worse," said Asali, who is also member of the bipartisan and interfaith Leadership Group on US-Muslim Engagement.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017