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Questions of Legitimacy Loom Over Abbas In Meeting with Obama

May 28, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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President Obama met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday to discuss divisions among the Palestinian people and the ongoing controversy over Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Two Mideast analysts mull the outcome of the meeting.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s meeting and its aftermath, we’re joined by Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to President Abbas, who’s been involved in prior peace negotiations with the Israelis. He’s now with the American Task Force on Palestine and a fellow at the Center for American Progress.

And Robert Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli affairs, he is now the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

Welcome to you both.

Welcome back, Rob Malley. We actually all watched the full press conference this afternoon, which happened very, very late. What did you make from the body language and what you actually heard, in terms of how this meeting went?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, if the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu was tough and the speech that President Obama is going to give in Cairo will be a challenge, this was spring break. This was the presidents getting along and actually agreeing on virtually everything.

It’s hard to see where they might have disagreed in their private meeting. It certainly wasn’t apparent in their public meeting. And I suspect that President Abbas comes back very comforted by what he heard, which is a president who said basically, “You’re on the right track.” That’s what he said to the Palestinians, and saying to the Israelis, “Now you’ve got to get your act together.”

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how the Palestinians see it, from what you understand?

GHAITH AL-OMARI, Center for American Progress: Absolutely. This was never a meeting about concrete results. This was a meeting about atmospherics.

President Abbas and President Obama wanted to get a measure of one another. I think in that regard the meeting was very successful.

Politically, the Palestinians heard everything they needed to hear: settlement freeze, two-state solution, and really no demands from the Palestinians at this particular juncture.

Freezing Israeli settlements

Ghaith Al-Omari
American Task Force on Palestine
I don't think there's an interest in creating crisis with Israel -- I don't think there's an interest in terms of foreign policy or domestic politics to do that -- but this might end up being the case.

MARGARET WARNER: But now the advanced -- sort of the advance hype for this meeting, Rob Malley, was that the Palestinians were going to come in and say, "Getting Israel to absolutely halt all settlement activities is a precondition for us to sit down and have real talks," yet they made no such comment at this press conference. What do you think happened?

ROBERT MALLEY: It's unclear whether they could hold to that position. I mean, the most interesting subplot that we're seeing over the past few weeks since we were last here is the question of a settlement freeze.

This administration has put it front and center in a way that I haven't seen any administration put it: unambiguous, without give anything wiggle room to the Israelis, saying no natural growth, what the Israelis refer to as natural growth or normal living. If you have a child, can you build a new house? They're saying: Nothing. You stop everything.

How is that going to play out? That's a very good principle.

How does it play out in policy for the Palestinians, if they put it as a precondition? Because I don't think any Israeli government will live up to that standard. And for the U.S. administration, what does it do when Israel -- regardless of the government in Israel -- says, "We can't stop everything"?

Do we then have a crisis with Israel, or do we try to work it through? And I think this is going to be something to watch very closely.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think this is risky? One, do you see it as quite different from other American presidents who've talked about stopping settlement activity. Do you see it as different? And, two, do you think it's a little risky, as Rob Malley seems to?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It's extremely -- it's very different. It's different in that it's the president, from day one, with no ambiguity whatsoever. We've never seen this before, this degree of energy this early on and this degree of clarity, repeated over and over. So I think -- and this is what the Palestinians felt in their previous meetings with the secretary and with General Jones.

Is this risky? Of course it's risky. The Israelis could very well come in a week or two and say, "We do not agree with this." And then where do you move from there? I don't think there's an interest in creating crisis with Israel -- I don't think there's an interest in terms of foreign policy or domestic politics to do that -- but this might end up being the case.

Obama on anti-Israel rhetoric

Robert Malley
International Crisis Group
[Palestinians] won't meet all the standards that we or the Israelis have, but he'll make some progress.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the president did say that he had a very "frank discussion," quote, unquote, diplo-code for a pretty -- maybe even contentious discussion about what he called incitement, inciteful language that is still heard, he said, in mosques and in newspapers, anti-Israel rhetoric. How big an issue is that still, in terms of what he's asking Abbas to do?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, it was interesting. It's the only real request that the president made of President Abbas, and so it's the one thing that I think President Abbas has to come back and focus on.

I think what it was in particular was to tell the Israelis: We're pushing you on settlements, but we're not leaving the Palestinians off the hook on this one issue.

But they're not truly comparable simply because it's something that at least President Abbas can try to work on. I suspect they'll make some progress. They won't meet all the standards that we or the Israelis have, but he'll make some progress.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about this issue that -- I spoke with Saeb Erekat and Rashid Khalidi about in the last day or so, which is whether President Abbas, who's only controlling the West Bank right now, even has the standing to actually negotiate a peace deal? What's your view of that?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: There are two angles to this question, one is the legal. And, obviously, he does have the standing, legally speaking. The real question, though, is political. Is he in charge? Can he deliver?

What I believe is that the strength of Hamas derives from the fact that the Palestinian people have given up on the peace process. For years and years, there was negotiation with no results. And they're looking now to see, is this going to be different?

I believe, if we really see a settlement freeze, if we see progress in the peace process, Abbas' platform would be rehabilitated and, with that, his popularity would be rehabilitated. And Hamas would be under tremendous pressure: Either oppose a successful peace process and pay a political price or come into the game based on international conditions. This is the challenge right now.

Bringing in Hamas

Ghaith Al-Omari
American Task Force on Palestine
If we have terms, as Hamas is insisting today -- that they're not going to recognize Israel, they're not going to recognize negotiations, and continues to advocate violence -- I don't see a peace process even starting

MARGARET WARNER: But isn't Abbas -- I mean, isn't Hamas in a position to totally frustrate any peace process?

ROBERT MALLEY: And this is really the quandary. This is a dilemma. The theory that we've just heard -- and which I think the administration truly believes in -- is that, if you give enough to empower Abbas, then the question of Hamas either resolves itself because Hamas feels it has to join the train or they lose popularity.

It's a theory that's been tested already, even though maybe not very well, and it has failed time and time again, because Hamas has the ability to thwart progress. It is an actor on the ground.

And for this reason, President Abbas has been an opportunity that has never ceased to be missed, because we've always thought that by helping him in these ways, we could overcome the structural obstacles of Palestinian politics.

I believe, as Rashid Khalidi was saying, you can't truly make a historic peace with a people and a movement that is so deeply divided, and I think there's a way to bring them together. There's a way to bring them together that meets our interest, but it's going to mean pushing further than we have so far, in terms of dealing with Palestinian politics and understanding Palestinian politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I want to get back to what that idea is, because I thought President Obama flicked at that today. But, first of all, do you agree Hamas has to be brought into this to make it credible?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It depends on...

MARGARET WARNER: They have to go for a unity government and have a unity government, essentially, behind the negotiations?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It depends on the terms of the unity government. If we have terms, as Hamas is insisting today -- that they're not going to recognize Israel, they're not going to recognize negotiations, and continues to advocate violence -- I don't see a peace process even starting. This will kill any prospect of a peace process.

If Hamas comes in based on acceptable conditions, that's fine, but it's necessary, nevertheless, not to include Hamas, but to ensure that no new flare-up happens in Gaza.

We have to start separating pressure against Hamas from pressure against the Gazan people. The siege in Gaza has to be lessened so that Hamas also finds it more difficult to find excuses to continue with those missiles they lob and to try to -- and to continue trying to disrupt the process through violence.

Debate over Hamas' stance

Robert Malley
International Crisis Group
Those are the two conditions I put on Hamas: no violence and a ratification process it endorses.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what was Saeb Erekat referring to when he said to me -- and the president seemed to be saying it, too -- not in these words, exactly -- that Hamas would have to join a unity government that recognized Israel's right to exist, but he wasn't saying Hamas would have to publicly change its stand. What is going on here?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I mean, it has been a debate. Does Hamas have to agree to the conditions? Does the government? Or do all its members?

Frankly, it's a Washington beltway belt kind of argument. It's like asking, if I were to be drafted in the NBA, am I going to play for the Celtics or for the Lakers? It's not going to happen.

You're not going to have a government with Hamas where Hamas agrees or the government itself agrees to the conditions, which is why I say -- my view is, let's look at the two things that are now obstacles, two things on the Palestinian side that are obstacles to a fair peace.

One is violence. And that's why Hamas has to agree and the government has to agree to implement a cease-fire. And the other is having a mechanism to endorse, ratify an agreement, which Saeb Erekat spoke about, but which you can't have if Hamas doesn't agree to a referendum, doesn't agree to abide by the result of that referendum.

Those are the two conditions I put on Hamas: no violence and a ratification process it endorses.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Rob Malley, Ghaith al-Omari, thank you.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.