U.S., Israel to meet on stalled peace talks

Thursday, May 19, 2011

JERUSALEM -- U.S. and Israeli leaders meet this week amid a deadlocked peace process, a Middle East in the grip of violence and change, and an emerging Palestinian plan to seek recognition for a state at the United Nations.

Disagreement looms: Barack Obama is pushing for a resumption of peace talks, while Benjamin Netanyahu considers it all but impossible to negotiate in the current environment, especially with a Palestinian leadership newly allied with the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The White House meeting Friday comes amid a growing sense of urgency brought on by the Palestinians' plan to sidestep the peace process and seek recognition for a state at the United Nations in September -- and against a backdrop of a changing Middle East.

The Israeli leader is also scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, a rare privilege for a foreign dignitary.

Netanyahu and Obama have expressed vastly different visions about the path forward -- Obama is urging a return to the bargaining table while Netanyahu has attacked the Palestinians' intention to set up a "unity government" backed by both the moderate Fatah of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Iranian-backed Hamas.

Obama argued Tuesday that the Mideast revolutions make it "more vital than ever that Israelis and Palestinians find a way back to the table."

"The United States has an enormous stake in this," he said.

Still, Obama has not specifically called on Israel to talk to Hamas, and this week's meetings and speeches may help clarify the issue.

But if anything, the unrest roiling the region seems to be curbing Israel's appetite for risk, raising questions from security -- an issue highlighted when hundreds of Palestinians crossed into Israeli-controlled territory from Syria on Sunday -- to the ability of potential peace partners to survive politically. And the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation has proven a hugely complicating factor.

In a speech to parliament Monday that aides said reflected his planned message to Obama, Netanyahu made clear his opposition to talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

"A Palestinian government, half of which declares daily that it is intent on annihilating Israel, is not a partner for peace," the Israeli leader said.

Abbas argues that he, not Hamas or a joint Palestinian government, would be the negotiator in any new talks -- a position that appears to be winning some sympathy around the world. And Fatah and Hamas are still wrestling over the makeup of a government, amid pressure to retain Abbas' internationally respected prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in his current position.

Fayyad's government has laboriously built up the infrastructure of an independent state, receiving in recent months recognition by a series of international financial institutions that it is ready for independence. The plan is to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize Palestine as a state on its own terms -- encompassing all the lands Israel captured in 1967, and with a capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed.

Although international recognition wouldn't change the situation on the ground, it could further isolate Israel and add to the pressure for a withdrawal from occupied territories.

For Washington, a unilateral declaration would run counter to the decades of effort to reach a negotiated solution, put America in the embarrassing position of voting against Palestinian statehood and further tarnish Obama's reputation as a Mideast broker.

Obama had promised a hands-on approach and after much cajoling managed to launch talks last September, setting a one-year target for forging a peace agreement. But negotiations broke down just three weeks later after an Israeli slowdown on settlement construction expired.

The Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel continues to expand Jewish enclaves in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- occupied lands they want for a future state. Israel refuses to freeze settlement construction, saying the matter should be resolved through negotiations.

Obama plans a major speech on the Middle East on Thursday, though White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Israeli-Palestinian issue would not be a major focus.

If that's so, pressure could be eased on Netanyahu to make any bold moves of his own.

Netanyahu, who heads a hard-line coalition government, has always been reluctant to make sweeping concessions. In recent years he has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state -- although one smaller and more restricted than what the Palestinians seek.

His speech to lawmakers also contained nuggets of moderation: He referred to keeping major settlement blocs located along Israel's frontier with the West Bank, which some interpreted as hinting at a willingness for a major withdrawal from the rest of the area.

But he wrapped up the speech with a series of demands that the Palestinians -- and especially Hamas -- are not likely to meet. Among them: Dropping their claim to east Jerusalem, their would-be capital, and recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland.

The ultimate impression was of an Israeli leader content for now with a wait-and-see position -- and confident that he can sell it in Washington.

"I think that had the Fatah-Hamas deal not happened, it would have put Netanyahu on the spot: Is he serious or is he not serious in American eyes?" said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"The region is in turmoil," Rynhold added. "We're in the middle of a storm, and I think that will be his main message. It looks like he's hunkering down."

The sense of foreboding was deepened this week as thousands of unarmed Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, emboldened by the winds of change in the Arab world, marched on the Jewish state's borders. Those who managed to cross -- from Syria -- were eventually returned, and at least 15 people were killed by Israeli army fire that day.

Their demands -- a return of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to Israel -- only underscored the deep complications and burning passions at play in the region.

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