Obama and Abbas seek to chart the path forward
When President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office Wednesday, they will have a largely shared albeit astoundingly ambitious agenda: to show movement on the peace process after nearly a year and a half of little progress and to craft a way forward on Gaza in the wake of last week’s ...
When President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office Wednesday, they will have a largely shared albeit astoundingly ambitious agenda: to show movement on the peace process after nearly a year and a half of little progress and to craft a way forward on Gaza in the wake of last week's deadly flotilla incident.
When President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office Wednesday, they will have a largely shared albeit astoundingly ambitious agenda: to show movement on the peace process after nearly a year and a half of little progress and to craft a way forward on Gaza in the wake of last week’s deadly flotilla incident.
"We look forward to engaging with President Abbas to move the process forward so that we can get to direct talks to address all the final-status issues, and to ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," said a White House official, adding that the two leaders "will discuss steps to improve life for the people of Gaza, including U.S. support for specific projects to promote economic development and greater quality of life, as well as a long-term strategy for progress."
Moving forward to direct talks also means that both sides must "address all the final-status issues, and ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," the White House official said.
That tracks largely with what Abbas said he wants to focus on in an op-ed Tuesday and what other Palestinian leaders are saying is on Abbas’s agenda when he gets to the White House. The difference is that Abbas will tell Obama that it’s the Israelis who need to change their tone and actions to make it happen — and it’s the Americans who need to push them to do so.
"The president [Abbas] is going to stress in the process the importance of accelerating these efforts in order to end the Israeli occupation," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "And he is going to urge the administration to use whatever leverage they have with the Israelis in order to end this inhumane blockade and siege of the Gaza strip."
Areikat said that it was too early to know if the proximity talks are bearing fruit. But he warned that the Palestinian Authority will only move to direct negotiations when Israel engages on "fundamental issues," meaning final-status issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the longstanding Palestinian demand for the right of return of refugees.
The Obama administration, which has said it wants to find ways to increase assistance getting into Gaza but not at the expense of Israel’s security, will also want to know what the delegation Abbas sent to Gaza following the flotilla incident heard from Hamas, which controls the impoverished coastal strip.
That delegation was sent, Areikat said, because "some believe that there is an opportunity to try to speed up these efforts to reach reconciliation." He didn’t, however, say that Hamas should be included in the peace process or that the Obama team should engage with the militant group, which the United States and Europe have designated a terrorist organization.
Experts said that the Obama administration needs Abbas to try to get past the flotilla incident, which should be in the interests of both the White House and the Abbas government. Abbas needs to show that his faction, not Hamas, is the center of gravity in Palestinian politics.
"I think Fatah was getting increasingly optimistic about where they were standing relative to Hamas in terms of popular support," said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, program officer in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. "So I think that one of Abbas’s challenges here is to take back some spotlight here, and take back the reins in terms of being in control."
If Abbas is really serious about reconciliation, he’ll have an uphill climb convincing the Obama administration that goal is achievable in the short term.
"Part of his job on this visit will be to convince the administration why it’s important, how he plans to do it and how somehow they can strike a deal behind the scenes that fits with the quartet’s conditions," said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at USIP, referring to the group of four Middle East players that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States.
The Israelis have criticized Abbas for refusing to come to the table for direct talks; the Palestinians, for their part, insist they won’t negotiate with the Israelis until they freeze settlements completely and indefinitely.
So Obama’s Middle East peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, has been shuttling between the two camps in what are effectively negotiations about … negotiations.
The White House wants direct talks "because there’s no way they get anywhere unless the format of the talks change, and they want to find out what [Abbas] needs to get into direct talks," Lasensky said.
On this trip, Abbas will meet with Obama, State Department officials, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and will also give a speech at the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the State Department said today that about $45 million of America’s $400 million in aid to Palestinians this year was designated for Gaza, with a strong effort to make sure none of that money went to strengthening Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, or commit to respecting past international agreements, as the U.S. insists.
"We will engage with any political group that is willing to meet our basic red lines for playing a constructive role in the region," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley,."Those red lines are clear. Hamas has made clear they have no intention at the present time of agreeing to those. And as a result, we do not have a political relationship with Hamas."
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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