What Will Obama Whisper into Bibi’s Ear?

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced last Monday that Palestinian civil servants, numbering about 150,000, were not paid their salaries "on time." The reason: Israel has failed to transfer some $100 million it collects in customs and other taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel took this action in retaliation for the reconciliation agreement signed earlier this month between Fatah, the Palestinian party that runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and which is considered by Israel and the United States, among others, as a terrorist organization.

Although the U.S. may follow in Israel’s footsteps, especially if Congress has its say, a State Department spokesman said the Israeli action was premature since the terms of the Palestinian reconciliation are seen by many as seemingly vague.

All eyes are now on Barack Obama to see what and if the American president can do on May 20 when he receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make him change his mind and come up with something more positive in his scheduled address to the U.S. Congress on May 24.

The Israeli daily Haaretz seemed pessimistic in its editorial last Tuesday describing Israel as a country being "led by a prime minister who instinctively deflects any initiative or change, who sows fear and foils any positive prospects, pouncing on any proof that there is no partner for diplomatic dialogue" and how Israel nowadays "was supplanted by a passive introverted mentality, evading reality particular the reality of positive prospects and opportunities."

Of course, the other side of the coin could be worse should Netanyahu manage to convince Obama to join his ranks as he has apparently done when the Obama administration last February cast its first-ever veto in the U.N. Security Council, blocking the Palestinian-supported resolution that denounced Israel’s settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East. All the other members backed the resolution.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has lately has been subjected to severe criticism because of the administration’s tardiness in welcoming the Arab Spring that has uprooted key Arab states and still may threaten others in the near future.  The muted response, if not failure, of the administration in pursuing the promises in Obama’s Cairo speech has extended the life of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton re-ignited the expectations one more time last month when she revealed that the Obama administration planned a new push to promote comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in the coming weeks.  How hard was Obama willing to push Netanyahu for concessions remained unclear, undoubtedly because of the trumpeted influence of the pro-Israel lobby among Congressmen.

Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Obama’s standing in the country, shot up 11 percent, up from 46 percent last month although the country’s  weak economy still remains the most serious challenge to his re-election in 2012.

The soft tone voiced at the Palestinian reconciliation ceremony in Cairo by Hamas’s Damascus-based political leader, Khaled Meshal, raised many hopes. He declared: "We will have one authority and one decision," adding from the podium, "we need to achieve the common goal: a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital, no settlers, and we will not give up the right of return."

Some may still not approve of all of that, but former President Jimmy Carter had this forward-looking observation in his Op-Ed published in The Washington Post: "It is worth remembering that Israel negotiated the (1993) Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization while its charter had similar provisions.  It took five more years before the charter was altered."

When Egypt and Israel signed their 1978 peace agreement, the Israeli delegation was headed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin whose first militant group was called Irgun Zvai Leumi, a notorious terrorist organization. In 1948, Begin founded Herut and as its head was the Knesset’s opposition leader until 1967.

In short, what has been sorely missing in Washington lately has been George J Mitchell, Jr., Obama’s special Middle East envoy and a former Senate Majority Leader from 1989-1995.

As The New York Times said in a recent editorial: "It is time for Mr. Obama , alone or with the Quartet, to put a map and deal on the table" with both Israelis and Palestinians.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at: Hishmehg@aol.com.

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