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Obama Faces Tough Choices on Mideast Diplomacy

WASHINGTON, May 10 2011 (IPS) - With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled to descend on Washington in less than two weeks, President Barack Obama faces some difficult decisions about how to restore the credibility of his promise to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without triggering a backlash in a Congress that is solidly pro-Israel.

That challenge has been rendered much more difficult by recent events, particularly last week’s Egyptian-mediated reconciliation agreement between the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group, and by the drive by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to gain U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state when the General Assembly convenes in September.

Both moves have been strongly denounced by the Netanyahu government and are considered anathema by the so-called Israel Lobby, which enjoys considerable influence among lawmakers on both sides of the Congressional aisle.

Indeed, leading members of Congress are already threatening to cut off the approximately 400 million dollars a year Washington provides to the PA unless it reconsiders its decision to reunify with Hamas, and are also calling for Obama to oppose the Palestinian effort at the U.N. statehood vote.

But punishing the PA, according to a number of Mideast experts, is the last thing that Washington should be doing.

“At a time when the United States is calling on Arab governments to be more responsive to the demands of their people, U.S. opposition to national unity, which has been a central demand of the Palestinian people for many years, would send all of the wrong messages to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world,” Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor to Palestinian negotiators, wrote at Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel.

Obama will meet Netanyahu with less sway than he once had over the PA in the wake of a U.S. veto in February of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The resolution was recognised by many analysts as being completely in line with stated U.S. policy.

Abbas pointedly expressed his disappointment in the U.S. veto by pointing to the subsequent statement by the major European powers.

“After the United States’ use of the veto in the Security Council, a declaration was published by Britain and France, supported by Germany, Italy and Spain,” Abbas said. “We accept the content of that declaration from A to Z, since it includes the total freezing of settlement building, and is backed by international references.”

Abbas subsequently stated that Britain and France would support Palestinian statehood in September and that at that time “we will ask the American president to fulfill his promises. He said that he wishes to see a state with full partnership in the United Nations. This is a promise from the American president.”

Obama needs to regain control of Mideast diplomacy. Former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told IPS recently, “Saying no to the United States without cost has become everybody’s favourite pastime. Leaders throughout the region say no to us and there’s no cost. Our street cred is way down.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not rule out the possibility of dealing with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, but reiterated that the group would have to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

Abbas left his own door open when he said on Sunday that, “If progress was recorded in negotiations, September would become a meaningless deadline because our preference is a peace process.”

Cutting off aid to the PA over Hamas’s presence, then, would severely limit the U.S.’s ability to stem the tide of the statehood vote.

Congress, however, is pushing for both shunning a PA with Hamas in it and sparing no effort to stop the statehood vote.

The first calls came from Republicans. Senator Mark Kirk sent an open letter on Apr. 29 spelling out what he saw as the U.S.’s legal obligation to cut off all support to a Palestinian unity government.

The chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, agreed: “The administration must follow U.S. law and immediately cut off all assistance to the PA.”

This was followed on May 6 by a letter to Obama signed by 27 senators, mostly Democrats, declaring: “It is imperative for you to make clear to President Abbas that Palestinian Authority participation in a unity government with an unreformed Hamas will jeopardize its relationship with the United States, including its receipt of U.S. aid … We urge you to conduct a review of the current situation and suspend aid should Hamas refuse to comply with Quartet conditions.”

Both the senators’ and Ros-Lehtinen’s letters also demanded that Obama spare no effort in opposing the statehood vote.

Obama has no doubt strengthened his political position in dealing with this dilemma in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. “Obama… has never been stronger and, following the revolutionary changes in the Arab world, Netanyahu has never been weaker,” says MJ Rosenberg, senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.

Still, Rosenberg wrote, in his weekly column for Media Matters, “The [Israel] lobby remains as powerful as ever, its donors as single- minded as ever, and Congress as devoted to pleasing it as ever. Obama might buy into the line…that this is no time to upset the Israelis and their friends.”

Abbas this week asked a delegation from J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group which has called for Israel and the Obama administration to “wait to see the policies of a new Palestinian government before condemning it”, to advocate in Congress for continuing aid and relations with a PA that includes Hamas.

J Street’s Director, Jeremy Ben Ami, said the group would “bring back to Washington the message that this may be the last opportunity with a Palestinian leader willing to say yes to peace with Israel.”

This can be an opportunity for Obama, according to former Israeli diplomat Daniel Levy: “There might be advantages for the U.S. in having this issue taken somewhat out of its hands… [it] might enhance the prospects of a solution, produce openings for more effective U.S. engagement with Israel, or at least might mitigate the debilitating cumulative impact this issue has on America’s standing in the Middle East.”

Navigating these contradictory pressures will be tough going for Obama, and both Israeli-Palestinian peace and the failing U.S. stature in the Middle East will hang in the balance of his choices.

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