Media Mention of Ziad Asali in The New York Times - September 12, 2011 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON — Among the very first foreign leaders President Obama called after entering the Oval Office on Jan. 21, 2009, was the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The last time the two men spoke was in February, when Mr. Obama failed, in an awkward, 55-minute phone conversation, to persuade Mr. Abbas not to go to the United Nations to condemn Israel for building Jewish settlements.

The 25 months between those calls demonstrate how Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Abbas has withered — and along with it, Mr. Obama’s hopes to make Middle East peacemaking one of his signature achievements.

Later this month, the Palestinians seem determined to go to the United Nations again, this time to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state, a move the United States has vowed to oppose. But Mr. Obama has no plans to call Mr. Abbas, a senior administration official said, because it is clear that the president can say little to stop him. (The United States blocked the last Palestinian resolution as well.)

“The beginning of their relationship was good — auspicious, actually,” said Ziad J. Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine. “But then decisions, mistakes and reality changed the relationship.”

American and Palestinian officials insist that there is no animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Abbas, unlike the often tense relationship between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. But Mr. Abbas has lost faith in Mr. Obama, Palestinian officials said, and after four face-to-face meetings and many regular telephone calls, there is now little contact between them.

This is a sharp contrast to former President Bill Clinton, who met frequently with the last Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, even if that relationship ultimately soured, too — or even to former President George W. Bush, who built a decent working relationship with Mr. Abbas during his effort to achieve a peace agreement.

Personal diplomacy has its limits in the Middle East, given the deep historic and political hurdles to an agreement. But it can help at times, former diplomats said, noting that Mr. Clinton used his charm with Mr. Arafat to get him to sign a deal with Mr. Netanyahu at the Wye River talks in 1998. Mr. Obama has also cultivated other leaders in the region, notably Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The lack of high-level contact will be telling in the coming weeks. While the White House has worked behind the scenes to head off the Palestinian campaign, Mr. Obama himself has stayed conspicuously offstage, leaving the effort to State Department diplomats and to Tony Blair, the special envoy to the diplomatic group known as the Quartet, which comprises the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

On Thursday, Mr. Abbas rebuffed a last-ditch appeal by the United States not to go to the United Nations, telling reporters it had come “too late.” His comments came after meeting with two senior American officials.

“The administration’s body language is conveying fatigue,” said Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. “It’s going to take a lot to persuade the president that it’s worth political capital to try to revive this.”

Indeed, in some political circles here, there is an argument that an American veto of the Palestinian resolution would be just fine, since it would win Mr. Obama favor with Jewish voters going into an election year. But it is a remarkable turn of events, given that the president began his Middle East peacemaking bid faster and with greater ambition than virtually any of his predecessors.

Among Palestinians, the disappointment is all the more acute because their hopes for Mr. Obama were so high. Judging by Mr. Obama’s background, temperament and worldview, Palestinians expected him to bring a new focus to the peace process and a greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. It did not go unnoticed that he is friends with a prominent Palestinian-American scholar, Rashid Khalidi.

Mr. Obama named a high-profile special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell Jr. He also spoke empathetically about the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza after an Israeli military campaign against Hamas there. And the president’s demand of Israel that it freeze settlement construction cheered the Palestinians, who believed that would remove a stubborn hurdle to a peace deal.

“We hoped a lot that in his administration, there would be real progress,” said Nabil Shaath, who leads the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority. “But later on, disappointment set in,” Mr. Shaath said in a telephone interview from Ramallah on the West Bank. “He really could not deliver what he promised in terms of a cessation of settlement activity.”

When Mr. Netanyahu refused to extend a moratorium on construction, Mr. Abbas felt let down. And he blamed Mr. Obama for leading him on. In an interview with Newsweek in April, Mr. Abbas said: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said O.K., I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”

The Israelis have long contended that negotiations should not be subject to any preconditions, and they view the Palestinians’s focus on settlements as a pretext to avoid serious negotiations.

The Americans have their own frustrations. Some officials doubt that Mr. Abbas is willing to take risks to pursue an agreement. His regular threats to step down as the Palestinian Authority’s leader make some question why Mr. Obama should make an investment in him. And with no hope of progress, they ask what would be gained by putting the president in touch with him.

“You pick your moments based on where you think the diplomacy is,” a senior official said. “The president’s currency is so valuable in diplomacy that if you don’t husband it, then you don’t have it when you need it.”

One thing both the Americans and the Palestinians agree on is that this is not one of those moments. Mr. Abbas has written off the prospect of a new American initiative for the rest of Mr. Obama’s term, Mr. Shaath said.

Still, noting that Mr. Abbas “keeps high esteem for the man,” Mr. Shaath said he “retains the hope that President Obama will be re-elected.”

“Maybe in his second term, he will deliver what he couldn’t in his first term.”


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