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Obama wades into Palestine-Israel talks

President set to sell 'US framework' to Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas in Washington DC.

Last updated: 16 Mar 2014 21:05
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US President Barack Obama and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas meet on Monday [Reuters]

Washington DC, United States - When President Barack Obama meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, it will be the next in a string of meetings held in the US capital to develop a "framework" for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Supporters on both sides have been making their case in the court of public opinion, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in early March celebrating the "special relationship" between the US and Israel, and critics only a few days later suggesting this relationship receives too much favour.

At AIPAC, US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose visit was meant to bolster support for the framework agreement, said he had no illusions about the state of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. "This isn't about me," he said of his efforts. "This is about the dreams of Israelis and the dignity of Palestinians."

Obama, who had attended previous AIPAC conferences but was noticeably absent at this year's event, recently expressed frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and spoke of the consequences should Netanyahu not engage more fully in the process.

Nothing relating to Israel is quite like the US interaction with other countries. Israel interferes with American elections. It has corrupted our Congress and government members.

- Philip Giraldi, former CIA counter-terrorism specialist

"If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach," Obama said, "then [the US'] ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited."

Refusing to be pressured, Netanyahu told Obama during their Oval Office meeting, "Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven't."

Tough issues

Obama's meeting with Abbas is also meant to get the Palestinian Authority leader to agree to the US framework agreement that calls for consensus on core issues and will help guide the next round of talks scheduled to begin on April 29.

The tough issues include Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law, but continue to be built in the occupied territories; the status of Jerusalem; identified borders; the right of return for Palestinians; security; and, as Netanyahu continually insists, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish" state.

In his AIPAC address he said: "I am prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbours," if they recognise the Jewish state. "No excuses, no delays. It's time." 

Palestinians argue they have already recognised Israel and recognising it solely as a "Jewish" state ignores the many refugees and Arab citizens - Christians and Muslims - who live there.

Despite the parade of US politicians at AIPAC, critics say the organisation's lobbying power is waning, and it will ultimately have no impact on US-led negotiations.

Ambassador Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told Al Jazeera that AIPAC is "an extraordinary example of how our system can be used, manipulated, and corrupted by a massive amount of money. AIPAC can marshal money, and politicians respond to that".

"The Jewish community is not monolithic and there are naturally critics of AIPAC from the right and the left," Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Al Jazeera. "But because AIPAC reflects the views of significant parts of the Jewish community, and because of the access it has to seats of power, it garners widespread support and respect."

Supporters of AIPAC say there's more than money that cements the relationship between the US and Israel.

"Money, of course, matters," Jacobson said. "But without the shared values and interests, as well as the general support of Israel by the American people, all the money in the world would not make a difference."

Palestinians chant slogans against peace talks with Israel [AP]

Executives from the Jewish Federation and the Israel Project declined to be interviewed by Al Jazeera, and representatives from AIPAC did not respond to our requests.

The 'special relationship' 

A few days after the close of the conference, a National Summit to Reassess the US-Israeli "Special Relationship" was held in Washington, sponsored by the Washington Report, the Council for National Interest, and other organisations, calling for a more equitable approach to the Middle East peace process.

With sessions titled "Has the lobby captured political parties and news media?" and "Does the 'special relationship' transcend rule of law?," the conference focused on the origins and inequities with the Israeli-US relationship in economic, sociopolitical and military regards.

In a closing session Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist, called for an approach to Israel more in keeping with US relations with other nations in the region.

"Nothing relating to Israel is quite like the US interaction with other countries," Giraldi said. "Israel interferes with American elections. It has corrupted our Congress and government members, insults and ridicules John Kerry, and its intelligence officers regularly provide inaccurate briefings for members of Congress on Capitol Hill."

Jacobson not only disputed such allegations, but said they were offensive and damaging.

"These kinds of accusations against Israel are pure fantasy and seem to stem from some kind of malice or bias," he said. Support for Israel in the US is not because of some conspiratorial activity but because of the continuing, overwhelming support of the American people for America's lone democratic ally in the Middle East."

Despite the close relationship and the $3bn in annual aid to Israel, the US has not been able to secure significant compromises or craft a successful peace plan between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Absence of war

Aaron David Miller, who spent more than 25 years working on Arab-Israeli negotiations under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, told Al Jazeera that despite decades of failures by the US to facilitate a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, progress is still being made.

"The situation is profoundly changed," Miller said. "The Arabs and Israelis have never had peace, they don't have it now, and they're unlikely to have it in the near future. But peace as in the absence of war, then yes, it's progressed."

Money, of course, matters, but without the shared values and interests, as well as the general support of Israel by the American people, all the money in the world would not make a difference.

- Ken Jacobson, Anti-Defamation League

Jeremy Pressman, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut, told Al Jazeera that efforts by previous US administrations to broker peace have not necessarily helped.

"Kerry is facing a harder road than, for example, Clinton at Camp David in 2000. The failure at Camp David and the second intifada changed the negotiating climate and the views Israelis and Palestinians have of each other, making reaching a negotiated agreement more difficult."

Wilcox said Kerry's "framework" is expected to differ in one key aspect - and in doing so, might have a degree of success absent in other attempts.

"The centre of this will not be bilateral negotiations, which have consistently failed over the years," Wilcox said, "but an American policy that would fulfil interests of both sides, coupled with old-fashioned American pressure on both sides."

Wilcox said peace talks between politicians alone fail to take into account the will of the people in both Israel and Palestine.

"To do this right, the US has to direct its attention not only to the politicians who run these societies but the people themselves, who are mostly in the dark about the framework, about what US policy is, and are very cynical," Wilcox said. "Somehow, unless the power of public opinion and public debate can be mobilised, I don't see how any real progress can be made.

"It won't be diplomats in secret talks who will bring a lasting peace," he said. 

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Al Jazeera
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