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‘Collective Breathholding’ When Palestinian Leader Abbas Visits Obama

So tomorrow Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will visit the White House, under the shadow of last week’s Israeli raid of a flotilla intended to break Israel’s siege of Gaza. What’s on the agenda? See if you can tell from this AFP story:

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will ask President Barack Obama Wednesday for “bold decisions” on the Middle East but US-led peace moves face a torrid climate after Israel’s Gaza flotilla raid.

Obama will welcome Abbas to the White House seeking to ensure regional fury over the May 31 Israeli commando strike does not doom indirect Israel-Palestinian talks that took months for Washington to organize.

He will also discuss American efforts to break through a “status-quo” on the blockaded Gaza Strip, which his administration describes as “untenable” following the deadly Israeli maritime raid, which killed nine Turks.

“Bold moves.” Breaking through the Gaza “status quo.” If all of that sounds vague and tentative, some Mideast watchers think that’s because the post-flotilla atmosphere between Israel, the West Bank-only Palestinian Authority and the Obama administration is marked primarily by confusion. Even after the raid, Obama may want Abbas to show an openness to moving beyond the indirect “proximity talks” — whereby George Mitchell, the administration’s envoy for Mideast peace, plays a game of telephone to convey messages between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Americans — and to direct negotiations. And in this op-ed for The Hill, Abbas loudly proclaims his desire for dialogue — without specifics about the form that dialogue should take. But after the raid, can Abbas really sell his people on the idea of moving more aggressively in the direction of talks with the Israelis?

“I’m not so sure that any of the actors here is exactly sure what they want, or what they can go in expecting,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, an Arab-Israeli conflict specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace who just returned from a trip last week to Israel and the West Bank. “You have that with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, where I don’t think he knows what he wants or what his next move is, I’m not sure the Obama administration does, and I don’t think Abbas does. And partly everyone is hoping the other side is going to come in and provide the solution.” She described the diplomatic climate ahead of Abbas’s visit as “collective breathholding.”

This is the first presidential meeting since the flotilla crisis. Obama will meet with Netanyahu soon after, following a charm offensive by the Obama administration to publicly proclaim Netanyahu as a partner. Obama and Abbas can talk about ways to perhaps get Netanyahu to ease the Gaza siege. But what will Netanyahu say?

Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Program, had an idea for Israel to turn the diplomatic tables on Hamas for the first time since establishing the Gaza blockade. They can reiterate their call for Hamas to release captured soldier Gilad Shalit; rely on international assurances against Hamas-driven attacks from across the border in Gaza; and then lifting the blockade. “You put this as your condition, and then you put Hamas in the corner,” Barkey said at a morning meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Because then Hamas will have to decide whether to accept these things, and you completely shift the discourse.”

Speaking of the Israelis, though, Barkey said, “I don’t know why they’re not doing it. To me that’s a no-lose situation, because the onus is on the other side. And then you ask for international guarantees, so you can say that if a rocket gets fired [into Israel] then Hamas will have to live with the consequences internationally.”

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