WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama continues to break new ground in his quest for Arab-Israeli peace as he finishes up his meetings with key players before a landmark speech in Cairo, analysts say.
After talks here earlier this month with Israel’s premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Obama is to meet this week with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Analysts see the prospect of concrete steps to revive peace talks from all sides in the run up to the June 4 speech in Cairo, which will focus on reviving ties with Arabs and Muslims but likely also to touch on peace with Israel.
Shibley Telhami said Obama is treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with both a sense of urgency and even-handedness rarely adopted by his predecessors.
Telhami remarked that during the president’s White House talks with the hardline Netanyahu last Monday, Obama was “rather blunt and straightforward” about the need to halt Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“I thought that he highlighted the issue of settlements in ways we haven’t seen in a long time,” the University of Maryland professor told AFP.
“And he did say that he expected the Arab states to do more,” Telhami added.
The administration seeks to “integrate” into its own approach the 2002 Arab initiative that calls for Israel to agree to a Palestinian state and withdraw from Arab lands occupied in 1967 in exchange for a normalization of ties.
However, it is asking Arab states to start now to end Israel’s isolation. Egypt and Jordan, which have made peace with Israel, have diplomatic and other ties with Israel, but the 20 other Arab states have limited or no ties at all.
Tamara Wittes, a Brookings Institution analyst, said Arab states with no ties could decide individually to open direct telephone links or allow Israeli commercial flights over their territory.
Netanyahu, even though he has balked at Obama’s call for a Palestinian state and an end to settlements, announced upon his return to Jerusalem the dismantling of one illegal settlement outpost.
That amounts to a “baby step in the right direction”, Wittes told AFP.
“The hope is that by the time the president gets to Cairo there will be a little bit more momentum and perhaps even some concrete steps in improving the climate,” she said.
Telhami said the confidence-building steps would “set up an environment in which you can actually mount an effective and credible peace process that the publics in both Israel and the Arab world will have faith in.”
Obama has embraced the peace process launched in Annapolis, Maryland by the preceding administration of George W. Bush, which calls for a Palestinian state living peacefully next to a secure Israel.
However, the process stalled after a lopsided war between the powerful Israeli army and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip during the waning days of the Bush administration.
Standing in for President Hosni Mubarak who is mourning a dead grandson, Abul Gheit is bound to review Egypt’s elusive bid to reconcile Hamas and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority when he meets Obama here on Tuesday.
The Obama administration insists that any unity government including the Islamist Hamas must recognize Israel, abandon violence and abide by past peace agreements — conditions rejected by Hamas.
The White House talks will also likely touch on Egypt’s role in countering arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, which Hamas has run since ousting the US-backed Palestinian Authority there in June 2007.
On Thursday Obama meets the politically struggling Abbas, whose sway is limited to the West Bank.
Mohammad Yaghi, in an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, expected the Palestinian and US leaders to discuss a “coherent and workable plan” for Palestinian elections now scheduled for January 2010.
Hamas’s surprise victory in previous elections — which led to a unity government that collapsed — vastly complicated Palestinian politics and peacemaking.
Obama’s meetings — highlighting unusual presidential engagement in Middle East diplomacy so early in an administration — sets up a speech designed to turn over a new leaf with Arabs and Muslims enraged with Washington’s policies.
Telhami said the new US president needs to capitalize on an unprecedented Arab and Muslim “receptivity” toward him in Cairo in order to frame a broad relationship with them that will help him establishes his credibility.
It would produce welcome by-products.
“Any time people start believing the president of the United States more, it helps American diplomacy in resolving the Arab-Israeli issue,” Telhami said.