When US President Barack Obama said on Aug. 6 that he has "great sympathy" for the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, it was not a phrase taken from the traditional diplomatic dictionary. While he believes that Abbas is too weak to make historic decisions (as stated in The New York Times interview on Aug. 8 with Thomas Friedman), his sympathy for Abbas reflects his support for the Palestinian leader. It is doubtful Obama would have used the same lingo in describing his attitude to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Washington, according to senior State Department officials, respects Abbas' firm stand against violence — without this position it is likely that a third intifada would have erupted during the Gaza war. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent much time on the phone with Abbas regarding cease-fire arrangements and appreciates the distance he took from Hamas in times of war with Israel. In the independent views and regional activity of Abbas, Washington sees an opportunity to create a bridge between the Gaza arrangements and Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. American diplomats claim that US diplomatic activity in the region is necessary, even if only to avoid greater destabilization in Palestine in the aftermath of the war. This means a renewed focus on security cooperation and settlement freeze.
It comes at a time when Washington's relationship with the Netanyahu government is at a low point; some would say this is the understatement of the year, especially given the Aug. 14 Wall Street Journal report about the White House scrutinizing Israeli requests for ammunition. While American diplomats express appreciation for Netanyahu's measured handling of the military option, there is a growing frustration with the dialogue of the deaf across the ocean. Netanyahu's handling of Kerry's cease-fire efforts left the relationship bruised with deep mutual distrust.
The trust for a weaker Abbas on one side, and the mistrust for a stronger Netanyahu on the other, comes at a time when Washington needs to define its post-Gaza Middle East strategy.
While there are divergences of views in the administration as to Middle East peace process activism, there is a common prevailing view of new opportunities.
Washington is clearly seeing in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a constructive player, although he is not its cup of tea in relation to democratization. Egypt is gradually regaining a leadership role in the Arab world, creating a new coalition of pragmatists, which includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). They see the irredentist, fundamentalist and radical forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza as a common threat and Iran's nuclear ambitions as a strategic danger to the region.
All these forces of pragmatism are suspicious of Washington. The United Statesis is blamed by them for short-sighted, naive misunderstandings of Middle Eastern realities and Machiavellism. These critics fail to understand that the Obama administration refuses to be the policeman of the region, or of the world, and that it believes more in the power of collective diplomacy (such as with Syria and Russia) than in forceful imposition of policies or the use of force.
Given the "Obama doctrine" of collective diplomacy, the administration will take a cautious approach to reactivating the Middle East peace process until all essential players are on board. At this moment, no one is on board for a real peace journey. Netanyahu is strong but not interested, Abbas is interested but weak and Sisi is focused on domestic challenges. So the peace process illusion is left with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli peaceniks.
The challenge for Washington is to stabilize the region, prevent an intifada and create a basis for future progress. The arrangements for Gaza will take time. The United States supports the equation of a gradual lifting of the siege in return for preventing the rearmament of Hamas. In this process, there is an important role for Abbas and his technocratic government.
An international aid package for Gaza will be accompanied with proposals to secure the Gaza passages against rearmament. A PA presence will be coupled with EU inspections. The demilitarization of Gaza, however, is only possible in the context of a permanent two-state solution.
West Bank security is also on the minds of American officials. They are contemplating strict demands from Abbas about security cooperation and curbing incitement, and from Israel mainly a major slowdown in settlement expansion. The concern is that in Netanyahu "peacemaking" with Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, settlement expansion will be on the table. That for Washington is a real danger to the delicate balance of forces post-Gaza war. Preventing it is a condition for maintaining hope of a peace process in 2015.
After the failure of the Kerry talks, the settlements are viewed in Washington as a strategic impediment for future peace. The secretary and his entourage here learned firsthand the impact of settlement expansion on Palestinian motivations to make the necessary compromises. With over 325,000 settlers in the West Bank — up from 200,000 in 2001 — it is the Palestinian view that any further expansion will make the contiguity of their future state, and therefore the two-state solution, impossible. Washington is not only empathetic to this view, but adopts it as well. It is actually also the stated view of the settlers and their representatives in the Cabinet, including Bennett. From all the people in the security Cabinet, Bennett, the Americans believe.
Senior officials in Washington are therefore concerned that a settlement expansion will create despair among the moderates in Palestine and strengthen the hand of those who believe in violent resistance, first and foremost Hamas.