Obama to hear Abbas’ plea on Settlements
US President Barack Obama will hear a direct appeal to ratchet up pressure on Israel to freeze settlements when he meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today as part of Washington’s drive to revive peacemaking.
Wading into Middle East diplomacy early in his presidency, Obama will hold talks with Abbas 10 days after hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, where they remained at odds over Jewish settlement expansion.
Abbas will make his case for a tougher US approach toward Netanyahu, who has not only rebuffed Obama’s calls for a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but has also balked at endorsing eventual Palestinian statehood.
But it remains unclear how hard Obama is willing to push Israel, a close US ally, to make concessions when his administration has yet to complete its Middle East strategy.
Obama, who has reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution, sees engagement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as crucial to drawing moderate Arab states into a united front against Iran.
In today’s talks, Obama’s objective will be to shore up Abbas, a moderate backed by the West but politically weak with rival Hamas Islamists controlling the Gaza Strip.
On the eve of Abbas’s visit, Netanyahu said in Jerusalem that the Palestinians must also be pressed to meet their commitments, including cracking down on militants, under a 2003 peace "road map" each side has accused the other of ignoring.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that Obama would keep prodding Israel to halt settlement building. "That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others," she said.
Palestinians contend that Jewish settlement building is aimed at denying them a viable state.
Abbas’s visit could be a preview of what Obama can expect next week when he sees Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, where the US president will deliver a much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world.
Muslims will be looking for signs of how Obama intends to tackle the Arab-Israeli standoff. His predecessor George W. Bush was widely criticised for neglecting the decades-old conflict.
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