Obama likely to give ME address ahead of PM’s speech

US president seeks opportunity to lay out new Mideast strategy; may use speech as platform for new Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER IN WASHINGTON, TOVAH LA
May 12, 2011 01:06
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)

US President Barack Obama is likely to deliver a major address on the Middle East before leaving for a European trip on May 22.

“This would be about political change in the Middle East and North Africa,” an administration official told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

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The official would not say whether the speech would lay out an American vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as many have called for.

Though the date for Obama’s address has not been set, White House aides are indicating that it could come next week. Obama Spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday that the president would speak “fairly soon.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first hinted last month that Obama would be making a speech on the Middle East, and it was expected that the president would devote significant attention to the peace process, even though the primary topic would be the revolutions sweeping the region.

Since then, however, Hamas and Fatah entered into a unity-government deal that has complicated the American posture toward engaging the Palestinians, and has pushed Israel away from the negotiating table.

At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been threatening to go to the United Nations in September to seek recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, which neither the US nor Israel want to see happen.

That threat has prompted speculation that through his speech, Obama would try to generate momentum in a different direction.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is due in Washington to deliver his own speech to Congress on May 24. There had been suggestions that he would try to seize the initiative by outlining a new move toward peace ahead of Obama’s address.

Now, however, it seems that the US leader is likely to speak first.

Israel and US officials have been in close contact regarding the upcoming speeches.

The speeches and Netanyahu’s visit – which will include a meeting with Obama on May 20 and a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee three days later – come at a time when both Israelis and Palestinians have insisted that they cannot negotiate.

The Palestinians have long said they will not sit down with Israel until it halts West Bank settlement activity and building Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

Israel has said that it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government partnered with Hamas, unless Hamas recognizes the three Quartet principles: renunciation of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of past agreements.

On Wednesday, Hamas party leader Mahmoud Zahar told Ma’an Radio that recognition of Israel was impossible – even though his organization could accept a Palestinian state along the pre- 1967 lines.

Hamas would accept a Palestinian state “on any part of Palestine,” he said in an interview with the Palestinian news agency Ma’an.

Hamas has previously said it is willing to temporarily accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The ultimate goal, however, would be a state of “Palestine in its entirety,” the Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal told Charlie Rose of PBS last year.

Formal recognition of Israel, the Gaza-based Zahar, who serves as Hamas’s foreign minister, told Ma’an, would “cancel the right of the next generations to liberate the lands.”

It would jeopardize the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were exiled from the land in 1948, when Israel was recognized by the United Nations, he said.

But he toned down the rhetoric and said Hamas had agreed to maintain Fatah’s truce with Israel.

The gesture was “part of resistance,” and was “not a cancellation,” Zahar said.

“Truce is not peace,” he told Ma’an.

According to the news agency, Fatah leader Nabil Sha’ath said on Tuesday night that a unity government with Hamas could be formed within 10 days, even though Ma’an reported that Abbas had been told that he could not visit Gaza at this time.

According to Ma’an, a new government will be formed within 10 days, and a delegation was likely to head to Cairo on Saturday to discuss its formation.

Last week in Cairo, Hamas and Fatah agreed to the creation of a new technocratic PA government that would hold elections within a year.

Israeli officials said the creation of a government of technocrats would not allay their fears of a Palestinian government linked to Hamas.

The question is who is making the decisions, and telling them what to do, they said. They likened the concept of a technocratic government with fancy attorneys in three-piece suits, hired by the Mafia.

What Hamas is saying is what they have always said: that they want to destroy Israel, and if they are linked to a new Palestinian government, they will continue to work toward Israel’s destruction from the West Bank, the officials said.

Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in the Knesset that a renewed Hamas presence in the West Bank would give Iran a foothold there.

“A Hamas state would constitute another branch of Iran in the region,” at a time when the West is struggling against Iran for control of a region which hosts the world’s oil reserves, he said.

“We must make clear to the world that if it recognizes a Palestinian state in September 2011, it could find out in January 2012 that an Iranian entity has been given an additional foothold in the Middle East.”

Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the “quest for a negotiated agreement has dominated the region for decades. I continue to believe that a negotiated solution is the only way forward.”

But at the same time, she said, she hoped that the unity of Fatah and Hamas was a positive development – one that was an important part of the process toward a two-state solution.

It was important to judge the unity efforts by their results, Ashton said.

Separately, she called on Israel to transfer the tax revenues to the Palestinians that it has withheld since the start of the month. Israel has refused to give the money to the PA until it receives assurances that the money won’t end up in the Hamas coffers.

Ashton also spoke out against nongovernmental groups who try to send ships to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade.

“I do not consider a flotilla to be the right response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” said Ashton, as she called on Israel to allow more movement of goods and people in and out of the Strip.

“I want to see the people of Gaza with a future, and I also want to see Gilad Schalit, captive for years in Gaza, given the chance to go home to his mother and father,” she said.


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