Thursday, May 7, 2009

Battening down the hatches

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are laying low until their meetings with President Barack Obama at the White House in the coming weeks. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to discuss their respective approaches to the stalled peace process in separate conversations with Obama.

Netanyahu is expected to challenge the U.S. administration to take further steps to deter Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons in exchange for Israeli cooperation on the peace process, and Abbas is certain to request Obama turn up the pressure on Netanyahu to voice support for the two-state solution and to restart final status negotiations with the Palestinians. Abbas' Fateh party will also resume reconciliation talks in Egypt with political rival Hamas. Abbas, who some sources claimed would appoint a caretaker government for the West Bank this week, has prudently decided to hold off on the appointments. If talks fail between Palestinian factions to form a unity government fail Abbas is expected to follow through and appoint a new government without Hamas.

Obama, despite Israeli pressure, is unlikely to announce his administration's comprehensive plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions until after Iranian elections in mid-June.

Update: Ma'an News Agency is reporting that Abbas will appoint a caretaker government (led by Salam Fayyad) early next week. The timing of this - only several days before the resumption of reconciliation talks - could be seen as a provocation by Hamas and lead to the outright dissolution of negotiations in Egypt. It is highly unlikely Hamas would recognize a government appointed by Abbas, whose rule they view as illegtimate. It seems it would be more prudent for Abbas to hold off on naming a new government until unity talks between the factions have been exhausted, as making appointments could easily be seen as an attempt to sabotage a unity government. The Fateh leadership, which Abbas is likely to soon abdicate, may actually be attempting to force Hamas into resigning from reconciliation negotiations, believing that the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority has enough support from the United States, European Union, and Arab regimes to isolate Hamas and force the militant organization to relinquish power in the Gaza Strip. If this is the case, Fateh is drinking some powerful Kool-Aid. If Palestinian unity talks break down, Hamas will not give up power and cannot be dislodged from Gaza by Israeli, Arab, or American pressure. Put simply, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the failure of reconciliation will improve the economic and political situation for the Palestinians. It certainly cannot help the peace process.

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