President Obama is due to meet today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The three are then supposed to meet, though it isn't yet clear whether this will be a substantive meeting or a photo opportunity offered as a grudging response to American pressure. It's nice that George Mitchell finally managed to drag Netanyahu and Abbas into the same room with each other. It's hard to find anyone who thinks that it will matter very much. But who knows -- with expectations so low, maybe it will be easier to surpass them and actually generate some momentum!
The quote of the day has to be in Haaretz, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak telling American officials that "Israel is interested in the peace process led by Obama, based on an agreement with the Palestinians." Really? Because if so, they sure have a funny way of showing it. To the casual (or not so casual) observer, it looks more like Netanyahu prefers battling Obama to pursuing a peace process led by Obama, based on an agreement with the Palestinians. A government which wanted a peace process led by Obama, based on an agreement with the Palestinians, would have ended the battle over the settlements months ago with an easy compromise. An Israel which wanted a peace process led by Obama, based on an agreement with the Palestinians, would seek to work with the administration rather than seeking every possible opportunity to poke fingers in the administration's eyes. If what they want is a peace process led by Obama, based on an agreement with the Palestinians, then they are doing a really bad job of it!
On the other side, Abu Mazen is Abu Mazen. He's an isolated, weak leader sitting atop a rotten, corrupt, unpopular Palestinian Authority which controls neither its territory nor its political fortunes. He's got some wind in his sails with the improved performance of U.S.-trained security forces, the removal of some checkpoints, and the non-failure of the Fatah conference. But those sails still sit atop a collapsing tugboat. The Obama administration is doing everything it can to support the PA and Salam Fayyad, but the overall strategy remains crippled by its ongoing refusal to consider anything other than West Bank First, Fatah Only. If the goal is to get to a true final status agreement, it's going to need to have at least the tacit consent of Hamas and will have to include Gaza. If it tries to move forward without at least that tacit buy-in from Hamas, the risks of spiraling to Palestinian civil war in the West Bank, horrific spoiler violence, or a deal which can't be implemented grow exponentially.
The best case scenario for today's meeting is that it puts to rest the morass of the last few months and sets a clear agenda for negotiations moving forward. I hope that Obama is talking frankly with each leader about the importance he places on achieving peace in America's national security interest, his impatience with the public shenanigans, and the rapidly ticking clock. Strained grins for the cameras aren't going to cut it.
Oh, and I'll bet that when George Mitchell sleeps, he dreams of sticks to carry in his bag alongside all those carrots... .