WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama is a rather sophisticated political machine. He returned to Washington Thursday after a two-day journey in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and less than an hour after being back at the White House, intimately engaged himself in the Middle Eastern question in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Politics is the name of the game. Obama knows that in the Mideastern story he needs to display the talents of a skilled political juggler – and first of all maintain the support of US Jews, who at this point provide him with a backwind in advancing the two-state solution. They believe that this way they will maintain Israel's Jewish and democratic character in the long run.
Politics is the name of the game far away from Washington as well. Obama is well aware of Abbas' weak political status at home and sought to boost him before he went back to Ramallah. Among other things, he made sure to praise him for his unwillingness to compromise on a unity government with Hamas, the group that does not recognize Israel. This is of course an American demand of the Palestinian Authority.
Obama also did not forget to make note of the serious political problems faced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, within his own party and within his coalition. The American president is giving Netanyahu enough time to get ready to face his rightist coalition, yet Obama has no intention of giving up in respect to the freeze on settlement construction.
The American leader knows that without implementing the first phase of the Road Map, there will be no hope for the peace process. As settlement construction sets facts on the ground, it will prevent in the future any possibility of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state. Precisely for that reason, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton latently declared that Israel must fully stop settlement construction, including "natural growth."
Bibi a better actorIn his talk with Abbas, Obama displayed complete balance in his demands of both sides. A halt to Israel's settlement activity vis-à-vis a halt to Palestinian violence - this is the equation that must take root in his view. Without it, there will be no diplomatic process.
Obama spared the Palestinians no demand, and enveloped the requirement to eliminate terrorism with nice words, as he excels at doing: It is necessary to continue the security steps Abbas has started to adopt in the West Bank along with General Dayton, he said. This is the American general training Palestinian police forces to impose law and order in the West Bank. However, the American president made it clear that Israel needs to trust that security measures are being adopted in the West Bank in order to advance the process.
Abbas' acting abilities are not as good as Netanyahu's. His body language at the White House was of one who was reprimanded by the American president, just like his Israeli counterpart 10 days ago. Obama also demanded that Abbas act to curb anti-Israel calls, noting that he reminded Abbas of the significance of reducing the level of incitement and anti-Israel expressions at schools, mosques, and public sites. These are all obstacles to peace, the US president said.
Ahead of the much-anticipated speech in Egypt, Obama is also looking at the somewhat broader picture, and demands the promotion of steps of normalization on the part of Arab states. The issue was raised during the press conference Thursday, and will likely be raised again next week, when the US president arrives Wednesday in Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, and a day later meets with President Mubarak in Cairo.