News Analysis: Stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to dominate Obama's visit

2013-02-06 20:33:11 GMT2013-02-07 04:33:11(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

JERUSALEM, Feb. 6 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Israel in March or April as part of a wider tour of the Middle East, with the stalled peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians possibly be the main agenda.

He did come to Israel in July 2008 before being elected president later the same year, but he has not visited since, stating that he will only do when there is an opportunity to make real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

According to Israeli TV Channel 10, Obama has been assured that he could be able "to accomplish great things" and to move the negotiations forward.

There have not been any negotiations for over two years, and there are issues which Obama needs to find a way to resolve before talks are resumed. Some analysts said that even if the talks are to restart, there is still an adamant risk that they will break down again.

"The assumption is that the president would not come to Israel unless he got some commitment from the parties, namely from Mr. ( Benjamin) Netanyahu and Mr. (Mahmoud) Abbas, that there is a willingness to resume the negotiation process. I would assume that this will bring about a restart of the political process," Shlomo Brom, of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Xinhua on Wednesday.

Prof. Eli Podeh, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that he was a bit surprised by Obama's decision to come but the fact that he is coming means that at least he is making attempts to promote the process.

"To what extent he will succeed is an open question because Israel still doesn't have any government and we don't know what its composition is, if is it more moderate than before," Podeh said, referring to the fact that Netanyahu is in the middle of trying to build a new coalition government after parliamentary elections were held on Jan. 22.

He added that "it might be that we will have a more moderate Israeli government that is more willing to discuss the peace process."

NEW GOVERNMENT

While Netanyahu's Likud party, which ran on a joint list with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, emerged as the largest party after the elections with 31 mandates, it is a significant lower number than the 42 that the two parties held before the elections and much lower than he has aimed and hoped for, hence, the building of the coalition turns tougher.

Netanyahu has stated that he wants to widen the coalition government indicating he will have to include either the center- left Yesh Atid party under former newsman Yair Lapid, or the right- wing Habayit HaYehudi party under Nafatali Bennet.

Yesh Atid received 19 mandates in the elections, and when it comes to foreign policy and especially the Palestinians, the positions of Yesh Atid are more in line with the right-wing of Israeli politics.

Brom said that he does not think that "there is a high probability that this new coalition, government assuming that it will be based mostly Likud and Lapid's party, will be capable of completing an agreement."

"Another partner in this coalition will be Bennet's party then the probability is even lower," Brom added. Bennet has called for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank.

Podeh said Obama will face a very complicated situation not only due to Israel's continued settlement expansion, which the Palestinians argue is being conducted on land where they aim to establish an independent state.

But Podeh added that, on the other side, Abbas has some serious legitimacy problems. "He is being challenged by Hamas and they are now talking about a possible reconciliation, so these are the internal Palestinian policy problems and they might affect the situation as well."

SECOND TRY

After Obama came into office in 2009, he asked Israel to impose a ten-month halt to settlement construction on the West Bank so that a climate of trust could be established between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel did comply with Obama's request, although some say Israel did make liberal interpretations of the guidelines of the freeze. However, it was not until the last month of the period that the two sides met for talks, and instead of focusing on the issues on the ground, the negotiations dealt with the order in which the issues on the ground should be negotiated.

The freeze then ended and Israel resumed construction in the settlements, leading Abbas to refuse to go on negotiations until Israel renews the freeze, which Israel has opposed to do.

Therefore, Obama needs to find a way either to convince Israel to renew or to get Abbas to agree to negotiate despite the fact that settlement construction is ongoing, something that results in him closing most of the very little confidence that the Palestinians people have in him.

Despite admitting that the talks could still be fragile even if Obama could clear all the obstacles, Brom said "I hope that they will check the possibility of reaching an agreement which is less than a permanent status agreement to keep the momentum and to keep the option of a negotiated solution alive and to start moving towards this option."

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