In US election year, Palestinians sidelined

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 1:55 p.m. MST

Palestinians carry the body of Zakariya Abu Eram during his funeral in the West Bank town of Yatta, near Hebron, Friday, March 9, 2012. According to the Israeli military, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier in the neck during a raid in the town of Yatta, seriously wounding him. The soldier opened fire, wounding the assailant and killing another man who was not involved in the attack, witnesses said.

Nasser Shiyoukhi, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Barack Obama has told the Palestinians to sit tight during a U.S. election year, while holding out the promise of a serious push for Palestinian statehood if he wins a second term, the Palestinian foreign minister said Friday.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman insisted Washington remains engaged, though U.S officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said the peace process is bogged down and prospects for resuming even low-level exploratory talks are slim.

It may be politically risky for Abbas to be seen as just marking time until November.

The Palestinian public is increasingly impatient with deadlock on all fronts, and Abbas could score points by reconciling with his longtime rival Hamas. But an alliance with the Islamic militants, who seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' Palestinian Authority in 2007, could upset the U.S. and hurt a statehood bid later. Israel has already warned that it won't negotiate a statehood deal if Abbas forges a coalition with an unreformed Hamas.

For now, Abbas appears to have his hands full just keeping the Palestinian issue from fading away — or being steamrolled by internal American politics.

The Palestinians have watched in dismay as Republican candidates, eager to please Jewish donors and voters, appeared to compete over who is more pro-Israel: At one point Newt Gingrich, backed financially by an ardently Zionist Jewish billionnaire, called the Palestinians "an invented people." Obama himself struck what was perceived as a pro-Israel tone in recent weeks.

The challenge goes beyond the U.S. election. The Palestinians' traditional Arab allies are preoccupied with the Arab Spring uprisings transforming the region. Europe is struggling with a painful euro zone crisis. And there is mounting concern about a possible Israel-Iran war over Tehran's suspected attempts to obtain nuclear weapons.

The Iran issue dominated the White House meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, serving as a reminder to the Palestinians that the world has little time for them right now.

The Palestinians knew what they were in for as the U.S. headed into the campaign, Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said in an interview.

"Everybody was telling us, including the Americans, 'don't expect that much from us during the election year because the president will be focusing on how to be re-elected, and in order to do so, he should really shift his attention ... to other issues,'" Malki said.

Asked whether Abbas holds out hope that Obama — if re-elected and freed from some of his domestic political shackles — will push hard for serious negotiations on Palestinian statehood, Malki said: "They (the Americans) told us so."

He said the Obama administration asked Abbas to be patient until then.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said Friday that "we completely reject that characterization both of our views and the message" to Palestinians and Israelis.

On Monday, the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia — will meet in New York to review peace efforts, but is not expected to issue a statement or come up with a new initiative.

During more than three years in office, Obama failed to restart negotiations that broke off in 2008. At the time, Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, exchanged initial border proposals, but ultimately failed to close the gaps before Olmert stepped down amid corruption allegations.

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