A deadline fast approaching, President Obama is seeking to ease the logjam in elusive Mideast peace talks and keep Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from walking away, despite few signs that either Palestinians or Israelis are prepared to budge on key sticking points.
Obama's White House meeting with the longtime Palestinian leader Monday marks a renewed foray into a diplomatic minefield that the president has mostly left up to his secretary of state, John Kerry. While Kerry remains deeply involved, his attention is split among multiple undertakings in the Middle East — not to mention a crisis in Ukraine that's consumed Obama's national security team.
With just weeks left before a U.S.-imposed April deadline for completing a framework for peace talks expires, Obama is inserting himself in the process with fresh vigor, hoping that presidential pressure might salvage the talks despite a growing sense of pessimism on both sides. Just two weeks ago, Obama held a similar meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he urged Israel to make the "tough decisions" needed to move forward.
Absent signs of progress, attention has turned to whether the parties might agree to extend the deadline if a formal framework can't be forged in time.
Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator under presidents of both parties, said both Abbas and Netanyahu have an incentive to stick with the talks — if only to avoid bearing the blame if the effort falters. After all, both Israelis and Palestinians have spent countless hours in direct and indirect contact, in what Kerry has warned could be the last chance for peace before demographics and fast-growing Israeli settlements make the conflict nearly impossible to solve.
"Nobody wants to admit the emperor has no clothes. Nobody wants the talks to collapse," Miller said. "Kerry may or may not end up with a piece of paper, but he has skillfully created an investment trap in which both Abbas and Netanyahu will agree to continue negotiations."
In the Oval Office meeting, Obama will tell Abbas that compromise toward a final agreement will ultimately benefit the Palestinians, said a senior administration official, who wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity. Obama will also make the case that direct talks with Israel are the only path to a sovereign Palestinian state. After the meeting, Kerry and his negotiating team will keep consulting with Israelis and Palestinians in hopes of "narrowing the gaps," the official said.
Kerry met Sunday with Abbas for what the State Department called a "frank and productive discussion," adding that it comes at a pivotal time in the negotiations.
The Obama administration is seeking a framework to guide negotiations on a permanent solution to the age-old conflict. The framework aims to address the core issues in the dispute, including borders between Israel and a future Palestine, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.
One of those core issues — Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — has emerged as a particular flashpoint in recent days, despite initial pledges by all sides to keep the negotiations private. During Netanyahu's U.S. visit, he revved up pro-Israel advocates by insisting the Palestinians relent. "No excuses, no delays, it's time," he said.
Although the U.S. has long recognized Israel's Jewish character, Kerry appeared to suggest Israel shouldn't obsess over the issue when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"I think it's a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace," Kerry said Thursday. A day earlier, he had warned lawmakers that mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis is as high as he's ever seen.
For Abbas, formally recognizing a Jewish state could be politically explosive, as Palestinians argue it would undermine the rights of refugees who fled during Israel's formation as well as the rights of Israel's own Arab minority. For Netanyahu and Israelis, recognition would quash once and for all the notion that Jews have no historical or legitimate claim to the land.
Palestinians are seeking an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — lands Israel captured in 1967 — with minor land swaps. Netanyahu rejects a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, and Jewish settlements in areas Palestinians claim for their future state have bred deep skepticism among Palestinians.
As the deadline nears, Palestinians are deeply suspicious that the emerging framework will largely favor Israel on issues like borders, Jordan Valley security arrangements, and refugees. The Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to resume their campaign for formal U.N. recognition if the talks fail.
The trip to Washington also comes at a tumultuous time for the region. A growing, public feud between Abbas and a former protege has exposed deep conflicts within his Fatah movement, which governs the West Bank. In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where hostility from Egypt's new government has prompted a deep economic crisis, militants and Israel's military have been engaged in the heaviest fighting since 2012.
And in a reminder that Israel's acute concerns about Iran are never far removed from the equation, Israel last week paraded dozens of rockets that its Navy intercepted in the Red Sea, allegedly on their way from Iran to the Gaza Strip. Despite accusing Iran of supporting militant groups in Gaza, the U.S. is pursuing a comprehensive nuclear deal with Teheran — much to Netanyahu's dismay.