Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Obama to offer Gaza aid to Abbas in flotilla aftermath
In effort to contain fallout over Israel Navy raid, US president expected to offer Palestinian president fresh US aid for Gaza during Abbas' visit to Washington
President Barack Obama on Wednesday is expected to offer Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fresh US aid for Gaza as Washington seeks to contain the fallout over Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla. Hosting Abbas at the White House, Obama will also try to ensure that heightened Middle East tensions over last week's deadly Israeli commando operation do not derail sputtering US-led peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
He will face a difficult balancing act.
Obama is likely to assure Abbas he will press Israel to loosen its Gaza blockade and allow in more humanitarian supplies, but at the same time the US leader wants to avoid further strains between Washington and the Jewish state.
Abbas' visit comes amid an international backlash against close US ally Israel after its forces boarded a Turkish aid ship bound for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on May 31 and nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.
The Obama administration has deemed "unsustainable" the three-year-old blockade, which Israel says is needed to stop weapons smuggling and Palestinians call collective punishment.
Expectations for a major breakthrough are low when the two leaders meet. But having pledged to help ease Gaza's plight, Obama will not send Abbas home empty-handed.
"The president and President Abbas will discuss steps to improve life for the people of Gaza, including US support for specific projects to promote economic development and greater quality of life," a senior Obama administration official said.
Obama's pledge will include a "long-term strategy for progress that we will advance through consultations with the Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians and other partners."
Keeping funds out of Hamas hands
There were no immediate details on the amount and type of US aid to be offered for the impoverished coastal enclave, which since 2007 has been run by Hamas Islamists who seized control from Abbas's Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
But any fresh infusion of funds would come with strings attached to keep it out of the hands of Hamas, which is on the US list of terrorist organizations.
In recent years, US aid to the Palestinians has been sent mostly to the West Bank, where Abbas governs, or funneled to Gaza through international agencies. Washington pledged $900 million for the Palestinians at a donors conference in 2009.
Seeking to boost Abbas's standing with his people, reporters will be allowed into the Oval Office to see the leaders together. Press coverage was barred during a tense visit in November by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which Israeli media widely interpreted as a snub.
Despite heightened regional tensions, the Obama administration hopes to keep alive indirect US-brokered talks that have made little headway since starting in early May.
"We look forward to engaging with President Abbas to move the process forward so that we can get to direct talks to address all the final status issues, and to ensure neither side take provocative steps," the administration official said.
Obama's Middle East diplomacy, central to his outreach to Muslim world, has been complicated by the flotilla incident.
Abbas's meeting with Obama will take place a week after Netanyahu canceled talks in Washington and rushed home from Canada to deal with the crisis sparked by the flotilla raid.
Netanyahu's visit had been billed as a fence-mending session to move beyond discord over Jewish settlement construction on occupied land.
Abbas is expected to appeal to Obama, who has been more measured in his response to the flotilla raid than the broader international community, to take a tougher line with Israel.
Obama has little room to maneuver. With US congressional elections looming in November, he must be mindful that Israel is popular with US lawmakers and voters.
Abbas also backs a UN proposal for an international probe, but the White House leans toward Israel's insistence on its own inquiry with a role for foreign experts or observers.
Abbas will arrive from Turkey, a US ally that has condemned Israel's action and curtailed ties with it. Abbas called the raid a "massacre." Israel said its commandos defended themselves when attacked during the boarding.