Jerusalem Barack Obama will try to get Mideast peacemaking back on track this week in a meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, hoping the weight of the U.S. presidency can resolve a showdown over Israeli settlement construction and get the sides talking again after months of deadlock.
For Obama, it’s high-stakes diplomacy that relies on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as key to cracking other world problems. He’ll be bringing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together in New York on Tuesday for their first encounter since Netanyahu took office in March.
Obama faces a tough task. The Israelis and Palestinians have dug in deep to positions that have eluded compromise, despite multiple visits by Washington’s special U.S. envoy.
Deep divisions among the Palestinians further complicate the process. And it’s far from clear whether there is enough common ground between the hawkish Netanyahu and the weakened Abbas.
The Palestinians hope to build a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those territories in 1967. While Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Netanyahu has given little indication that he is ready to make territorial compromises in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that would be crucial to reaching an accord.
After the meeting was announced Saturday, Netanyahu’s office said he “warmly accepts” the invitation. A senior Israeli official said the meetings in New York were meant to lay the groundwork for negotiations but would not constitute a relaunch of talks.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to articulate government policy on the record.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians “felt the intervention of President Obama is a good sign, a sign of commitment on the part of the president.”
He said they would talk about “obligations and commitments” and that the Palestinians “believe this (the trilateral meeting) is an opportunity.”
Talks on the Palestinian side are being handled by Abbas and his moderate Palestinian Authority. The Islamic militant Hamas group that overran Gaza in 2007 is not a party to the negotiation process.
In Gaza on Sunday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh castigated the new U.S. administration and said he wouldn’t recognize any accord.
“Any signature will be invalid, and it won’t bind the Palestinian people to anything,” he said in a sermon in Gaza City at the start of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Obama is eager to mend relations with the Muslim world, which frayed badly over the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows Washington’s close alliance with Israel goes to the heart of Muslim anger toward the West.
With this in mind, Obama has put heavy pressure on Israel to halt construction of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has said he will slow construction, but refused to accept an absolute freeze.
While the tough stance toward Israel has been welcomed in the Arab world, it also appears to have raised Palestinian expectations. Should Obama fail to wring significant concessions from Israel, his credibility could suffer among Muslims and Arabs.
His public spat with Israel over the settlements has also strained relations with the Jewish state, where many wonder whether Obama is as committed to their safety as previous U.S. leaders were.
Bolstered by Washington’s stance, the Palestinians are showing new resolve on opposing settlement construction. Abbas has refused to begin negotiations without a settlement construction freeze.
Abbas lost credibility among Palestinians after the latest round of peace talks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke down last winter following Israel’s bruising offensive against Hamas in Gaza.