Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama, Abbas, Netanyahu: More Than a Photo-Op

Just last week, prior to the Jewish new year, Israeli media was reporting that there was a long way to go before a proposed meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could take place on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York. It was said the sides were too far apart, that Israel would not agree to a full settlement freeze and the PA would not meet with Netanyahu until such a freeze was in place. Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: despite the impasse, Obama simply invited Abbas and Netanyahu to meet and neither of them could refuse. How could they?! The US president requests their presence at a joint meeting, to act as a mediator, to move the peace process forward--if the sides were already trading accusations that the other was acting as an obstacle to peace, saying no to the US president would have made very clear who was not willing to go the distance.

The PA was quick to apply a caveat to the tripartite meeting, as it is being called. A PA spokesman made clear that the PA did not consider the meeting a resumption of peace talks and that such talks would not begin until all settlement activity was frozen. Then, in a statement that underscores the challenges that lie ahead, Hamas issued a statement that they do not recognize Abbas as a representative of the Palestinian people and will not be bound by anything he does. The complications this presents are self-evident, as a significant portion of Palestinian territory and population are subtracted from the meeting and that the process taking place in the West Bank would have to be duplicated for the Gaza strip.

Netanyahu too has chinks in his negotiating armour as well, though perhaps not as obvious as the PA's. This chink is the in the form of Member of the Knesset Danny Danon who is suggesting that Netanyahu is not being true to Likud Party values and is meeting not only with US politicians but also leads a group of Likud parliamentarians critical of and upset with the idea that Netanyahu would ever negotiate with the Palestinians. For a better idea of what Danon believes, check out his website where he calls for an immediate end to all talks relating to the establishment of a Palestinian state, or even better, watch this clip where he explains his opposition.

So, President Obama is faced with a meeting between two leaders who each enjoy questionable support from their populations, one of whom does not want to be there at all and is trying to control the title of the meeting, and the other is more or less hamstrung by his domestic political situation. No wonder the White House is playing down the chances of success these meetings may have.

It really is not very important what the meeting is called though. It could be called a photo-op, a Broadway Show tunes Singalong Summit or the Palestinian-Israeli Twister Championships. What's important, is that Abbas and Netanyahu will be meeting, in the same room as the leader of what is perhaps the only country in the world able to broker any type of peace deal. As is evident from the meeting itself, which for a while looked like it would not happen until Obama stepped in, what is said publicly, is often quite different than what actually happens.

It should not be a surprise if as a result of this meeting each side is able to announce a face-saving measure allowing peace talks to begin. Netanyahu for example may be able to announce that some schools or communal (not housing) construction can take place in the settlements while Abbas would be able to promise his people that no new people will be moved to the West Bank and that perhaps further checkpoints and roadblocks will be removed, easing life for his people. This may not be an ideal situation, but it's something that may allow Abbas to back down from his hardline position and allow Netanyahu to placate the vultures circling within his own party. This is exactly the type of "upgrade" the US is hoping will come from this meeting.

In any event, stay tuned for some great photography, an emotive rendition of Memories from cats or Mr. Netanyahu's right hand on the yellow square. It will be interesting in all cases but will likely not be a waste of time.

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