Can the US get Mid-East peace talks back on track?

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
Israel's raids on Gaza-bound aid ships forced the US to rethink its approach

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will hold his second Oval Office meeting with Barack Obama on Wednesday, almost exactly a year after his first visit to Washington - but amidst very different circumstances.

The fallout from the Israeli raids on the Turkish flotilla heading to Gaza has created a crisis for almost all the players involved.

Mr Abbas was embarrassed by the raid, which took place while he was engaged in indirect talks with the Israelis. The outrage caused by the raid has put Israel further under the spotlight and even Hamas, which has gained most from the raid, will now want to show its supporters how it intends to turn this into a concrete advantage.

And finally, the Obama administration has been forced to rethink its approach to Gaza and internal Palestinian politics.

Washington, which lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation, sought to increase the isolation of the group after its takeover of Gaza in 2007 and has opposed international Palestinian reconciliation.

The US is now also left wondering how it can salvage faltering peace talks.

Who first?

President Obama tried to sound hopeful in a recent interview on Larry King Live on CNN.

Image caption,
Mr Abbas's visit was announced well before the flotilla incident

"I think what's important right now is that we break out of the current impasse, use this tragedy as an opportunity," to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he said.

The Palestinian leader will be coming here from Turkey, where he stopped to pay his respects to the nine Turkish activists who died in the Israeli ship raids.

He also met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.

Mr Abbas was there for an Asian security conference, which was also attended by Syria's President Bashar Assad and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr Abbas's visit to Washington was announced well before the flotilla incident.

Mr Obama then suddenly invited the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to come to Washington last week in order to speak to him before the Abbas meeting.

But Mr Netanyahu had to cancel his visit to deal with the aftermath of the flotilla raid.

Strengthened hand

It had been expected at the time that Mr Obama would seek to push the parties towards direct negotiations after a couple of recent rounds of indirect talks, in the hope of accelerating the process and create more tangible progress towards the stated goal of a two-state solution.

But the Israeli raid against the Turkish flotilla has changed the immediate focus and forced the Obama administration to take another look at how it deals with Gaza.

The blockade was meant to isolate and weaken Hamas, but the incident has now strengthened the hand of the militant group.

"We are consulting closely with Egypt, as well as our other partners, on new ways to address the humanitarian, economic, security and political aspects of the situation in Gaza," said US Vice President Joseph Biden, following talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also said the current situation in Gaza was unsustainable.

But the US is unlikely to seek a major change, like lifting the blockade outright, as this would risk further strengthening Hamas.

Washington will work hard to portray any shift in policy as an Israeli gesture towards Mr Abbas.

Image caption,
Israel's flotilla raid sparked protests in countries across the world

But Michele Dunne, a former state department official now at the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the flotilla incident had made clear the failure of the US approach, adding that it was not possible to build peace "while starving Gaza".

While not calling for a total lifting of the blockade, in a piece titled "Let Fatah talk to Hamas" published in the New York Times, Michele Dunne said it was time for the US to allow Palestinian reconciliation to go ahead.

"The United States needs not engage Hamas directly… but it is time for the United States to tolerate the internal Palestinian competition and bargaining that will be necessary to reunite the West Bank and Gaza and to support real institution building for a future state," she wrote.

'Bold decisions'

Opponents of reconciliation talks have long feared it would be rewarding radicals who have stood their ground for the past three years, while weakening the moderates who have played ball with the US but have nothing to show for it yet.

President Abbas is acutely aware of how much hangs in the balance during his visit to Washington.

"My message to Obama during our meeting in Washington next week will be that we need bold decisions to change the face of the region," he said last week during a Palestinian investment conference in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Taghreed el Khodary, also from Carnegie, said there was a possibility Israel may now be more willing to move forward with talks, direct or indirect, and make a tangible gesture in an effort to contain the global outcry over the raid and repair its damaged image.

But there are still doubts that Mr Netanyahu would offer anything substantial enough to constitute progress towards a two-state solution.

But Mrs el Khodary, who until recently was based in Gaza as a reporter, warned that Mr Abbas's position was increasingly tenuous.

"The US will continue to put pressure on Abbas to talk to [the Israelis] but if Abbas is not offered something by Obama during his visit to Washington, it will be the end of Abbas and the Fatah party."

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