What's the deal with the Netanyahu-Abbas-Obama meeting?

By Daniel Chejfec

President Obama summoned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him in New York on Tuesday, September 22. On the face of it, it looks like an attempt to bring both sides around the table and extract compromises that would allow negotiations to resume. Is that really it?

President Obama is facing strong and growing opposition at home, even from within his own party, and his popularity is at the lowest point since taking office and dropping. The reasons are amazingly simple: he created expectations he could not meet by making promises he could not deliver. At the same time, the rescue operation of the Automakers doesn't seem to have the effect he expected, the Real Estate market continues to drop, Wall Street is at the best shaky and is anybody's guess if the market is on its way up or down, and unemployment continues to rise. To top all these problems, the President's drive for a Universal Health Care insurance did not succeed. By and large, the most visible and obvious positive result from the Administration so far was the warm reception of Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, resulting in a warming of relations with the moderate elements of the Arab world. Much has been said about the speech and its implications for the US-Israel alliance, with some pundits believing the relationship is stronger than ever and some pundits convinced that Obama's administration is reorganizing relations with the Middle East to the detriment of Israel.

Whichever side you're on, you need to recognize that the recent rebuke by the US Administration of the Israelis' plans to build additional housing in some settlements in the Jerusalem environs was the strongest ever from any US Administration, and the strain in the relationship between America and the Jewish state is now very intense. It is in this context that Obama is calling the meeting, so let's check the facts:

Abbas has, at best, a tenuous control of the Palestinian street in the West Bank, and no control whatsoever over the Hamas government in Gaza. Because of the historical dynamics between the PLO and Hamas, any concession to Israel or the US by Abbas would weaken his political capital, already low to begin with. Interesting enough, his political capital was recently boosted by Israeli concessions including the removal of a large number of check point and the increase of work permits for Palestinians to work in Israel. But this helped as much (as my grandfather used to say in Yiddish) "as a Toitn Bankes" which means - not much really. Palestinians are fed up with government corruption and the lack of economic opportunities, as well as with the Palestinian government-sponsored violence, and that is what makes them susceptible to Hamas' message - not because Hamas is better, but because it is a different choice. In order for Abbas, hailed as a moderate, to be able to make concessions to Israel, he needs a big boost in prestige in the Arab street - the kind of boost that can only come from showing that he prevailed over the Israelis in some way.

As for Netanyahu, his government coalition is frail and any significant concession to the Palestinians at this point can cost him much needed support from his coalition partners. Forcing Israel to make concessions right now can only destabilize the government led by Netanyahu and maybe even force new elections - and that means that nothing will happen in the negotiation front until the dust settles and a new coalition is in place, with or without Netanyahu, at which point it would be back to square one. Even if Netanyahu survives the political storm, he would be forced to take a far more uncompromising position in order to retain power.

As for Obama, his though stance toward Israel was welcomed in the Arab World and raised Palestinian expectations, but not producing results in a publicly announced initiative such as the meeting on Tuesday will damage his credibility with the Arabs, and the Arabs expect him to force Netanyahu to back off from the construction plans - which as I mentioned before has the potential to destabilize the Israeli government coalition. But even if a compromise is reached and some kind of document is signed, the wild card is still Hamas. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh castigated in Gaza the US administration and warned that he will not recognize any accord. In his own words "Any signature will be invalid, and it won't bind the Palestinian people to anything"

Obama's only chance to come out of this meeting with anything resembling success is to extract from Israel deep concessions on settlements, chiefly a full freeze in construction - But Hamas will not welcome it anyway, remaining out of the table and using the agreement as a weapon to weaken Abbas' position.

In light of all this - what are really the President's motivations to set-up a meeting with Israelis and Palestinians that can produce no agreement nor Peace breakthrough? I gave you the facts, you need to come up with your own conclusions...


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