WASHINGTON - If ahead of the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the analysts tried to assess the intensity of the confrontation with U.S. President Barack Obama, the president's meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House today is raising a completely different query: Is the 74-year old Palestinian leader still relevant?
Abbas arrived in Washington Wednesday night and went to work with a "working dinner" with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like the meeting between Netanyahu and Clinton, this one too was closed to the press. The media in the United States has questionned Abbas' effectiveness ahead of the visit.
The Washington Post noted that "Abbas heads a fractured government and a fractured political party. His term expired four months ago. His handpicked prime minister, trusted to manage billions of dollars in foreign aid, is reviled by some Palestinians as a U.S. proxy."
Time Magazine wrote that while Netanyahu is opposed to the principle of two states for two peoples, Abbas, who is committed to such a solution, is limited in his ability to negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people.
Obama considers his role as one in which he provides Abbas with the necessary support, in part by pressing Netanyahu and taking a tough stance on settlements.
Even though Netanyahu does not intend to make any more concessions to Abbas than his predecessor did, this is a critical time for restoring the political mandate of the PA leader, and stalled talks can only undermine his position further. Washington is pressing Abbas to accept unconditional talks with Israel. But Obama is careful about placing too much on Abbas. Hamas has already made it clear that the group considers Abbas' visit to Washington as another humiliation for the Palestinian leader at the hands of Israel and the U.S.
While Washington has downplayed the visits here of Netanyahu and Abbas, Obama is busy building up the Arab peace plan. The White House announced yesterday that Obama will expand his visit to the Middle East, and prior to visiting Cairo for his address to the Muslim world, he will pass through Saudi Arabia and Jordan for talks on the peace process with the leaders there.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama would hold talks with King Abdullah in Riyadh on 3 June to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, Iran and terrorism.
Some analysts say the U.S. administration is considering adopting a modified Arab peace plan proposed by the Saudis. The inclusion of Saudi Arabia "was not born of anything specific," Gibbs said.
While Israel and the Palestinians are standing still on the peace process, the U.S. is expanding cooperation with Arab states in an effort to advance the issue.
Clinton met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and thanked the Egyptian leadership for its determined contribution to the peace process and to bridging the differences between the parties.
The secretary of state reiterated that the U.S. is committed to peace in the Middle East and stressed that each of the parties had made promises in the past "which we expect them to keep."
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