Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be seeking to improve his prospects for political survival in the West Bank when he meets with President Barack Obama today to discuss keeping U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel on track.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned meeting with Obama at the White House was canceled last week after Israel raided one of the ships of an aid flotilla, and nine activists bound for the Gaza Strip died.
Abbas built his political career on ties to the U.S. and the promise of a peace settlement with Israel. Indirect negotiations, which began last month and will last until September, have yet to show progress, and Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem has generated renewed protests from Palestinians.
“Abbas is dependent on Israel and the U.S., and over the last year that association has not been positive,” Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
U.S. support for Israel after the flotilla raid has damaged Abbas at home and boosted his rival Hamas, Miller said.
“There’s almost nothing the president can say or do to strengthen Abbas right now, but Abbas has no alternative other than coming here,” said Miller, who was a State Department analyst from 1978-2003. “If he wants to maintain his relevance and not become more marginalized than he already is, he needs to see the president.”
Hamas Could Gain
Hamas, which controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, will benefit if Abbas is unable to deliver a peace deal, said Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour.
“He’s been promoting a peace agreement as the only way to give Palestinians a better life,” Kukali said. “If he fails, Hamas will get stronger and could take over. There’s no other way to go but through Washington.”
Abbas last visited Obama on May 28, 2009, according to the White House.
With the Palestinian’s return, Obama plans to discuss common efforts to achieve peace and reinforce American support for the Palestinian people and ideas for a long-term strategy that advances a better life in Gaza, according to an administration official who declined to be identified. Obama also aims to move the peace process forward to direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, the official said.
The presidents also will discuss U.S. support for economic development projects, the administration official said.
The two sides had been making progress before the flotilla incident and the original plan had been for Obama to meet with both Netanyahu and Abbas individually, said Mukhemer Abu Sada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.
“Abbas didn’t pull out because, effectively, he’s talking with” the U.S., Abu Sada said. “He’s not negotiating with Israel at this point. That’s the point of the proximity talks. It gives him some protection.”
Abbas’ visit is politically risky if he returns home empty- handed, said Taghreed El-Khodary, a visiting fellow with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
If the White House’s separate discussions with Netanyahu don’t present Abbas with something new to consider, “Abbas will look bad and who wins? Hamas,” El-Khodary said.
Abbas has pursued peace talks, last held in 2008, even given the flotilla incident and Israel’s refusal to freeze settlement activity permanently. Abbas had initially considered not participating in talks after Israel announced construction plans for 1,600 homes in an area that both sides claim.
Even as he condemned the flotilla raid as “state terrorism,” Abbas told United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon that he was “determined” to continue indirect talks with Israel, according to UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell brokered the latest round of indirect peace talks last week.
If Abbas seeks to convey an image of strength for the Palestinian Authority, his participation carries political risks in Gaza.
Hamas has been working to underscore Abbas’s connection to the U.S. by “parading around the fact that only the Americans have not reacted toughly to the flotilla incident and aren’t doing enough to ease the Gaza blockade,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt Abbas’s credibility has been weakened and Hamas’s strengthened.”