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Obama's Call Could Signal Support For Palestinian Leader

Abbas's term has officially expired, but Obama gave him a vote of confidence
Abbas's term has officially expired, but Obama gave him a vote of confidence
On his busy first full day in office, U.S. President Barack Obama called Middle East leaders to offer his support for the cease-fire that ended the 23-day violence in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian Hamas. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas. A Palestinian spokesman said Abbas was the first person Obama called, and that the U.S leader made a point of telling him so.

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully in Washington, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said it's dangerous to read too much into the call. But he acknowledged that it could restore some "relevance" to the status of the Palestinian leader.

RFE/RL: What should people make of the fact that Obama's first call to a foreign leader was to Palestinian Authority President Abbas?

Nathan Brown: I thought it was striking. If you go back a couple months, or even one month, I think the Obama administration hoped that it would come in with some kind of honeymoon period, that they would get to set the agenda. Certainly [the] Middle East is uppermost on America's security concerns, but there are other issues in the Middle East -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan -- and they would have probably liked to step back a little bit and take advantage of the goodwill, the good feeling, and set their own agenda for how they were going to deal with the region. Instead, [Obama] walks into a region that is just recovering from what really was a war. So in a sense, this is something that is thrust upon him in an unwelcome way.

RFE/RL: But why Abbas? In fact, hasn't Abbas's term as president of the Palestinian Authority formally expired?

Brown: If he wants to address the Palestinian audience, there's the question of who the person to talk to is. Mahmud Abbas's term, according to the Palestinian constitution, is up. He's not president any more. Now, he has a legal argument that can say he's still the legal president, but it's not one that Hamas accepts. So [Obama is] stepping right into this and saying, essentially, "I may be different from Bush in all sorts of respects, but when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, I'm going right back to the man the Bush administration focused all of its attention on, and that's Mahmud Abbas."

RFE/RL: By speaking to a Palestinian leader before calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, do you believe Obama was trying to show the Palestinians that he plans to take a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

Brown: I wouldn't read that much into it. It's possible. First, I don't think that would be the intended signal, that he would call a Palestinian leader at the expense of an Israeli leader or as a priority over an Israeli leader. It could be, but, in a sense, before his entire Middle East team is in place, that would be an odd step to take, to make a fundamental decision on that about a reorientation in approach, with the secretary of state not even yet confirmed. So I would be surprised if that's an intentional message that they're trying to send.

RFE/RL: So if Obama is making it clear, on his first full day as president, that he'll deal with Fatah, not Hamas -- at least for now -- is there anything Hamas can do to become part of the peace process?

Brown: Literally, what they have to do is meet the same set of conditions. That's to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and so on. Those are the conditions that were set out back after Hamas was elected [to run the Palestinian Authority in 2006].

However, everybody knows Hamas is not going to do that in any recognizable form. So the real questions are: if Hamas takes some steps in those directions, what do those steps have to be? The Bush administration's line was essentially all or nothing. Will the Obama administration play the same game?

But the second question -- and to me the more interesting and more pressing one -- is not, "Is Obama going to directly talk to Hamas?" but instead, "What is the Obama administration's attitude going to be when other people start [talking to Hamas]?" The Egyptians already do. The Turks already do. What about the Russians? What about the French or the Swedes? That is really the question that they're going to be faced with very, very soon because there're going to be all sorts of people who are saying, "Look, the United States doesn't have to talk to them, but we can talk to them and we can be that bridge between Israel and Hamas and between the United States and Hamas."

RFE/RL: Many observers have criticized the Bush administration for leaning too much in favor of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. How would you characterize Bush's approach?

Brown: There was a real question after the 2006 elections about how winning power would affect Hamas. And in a sense, the Bush administration's approach was not to test them, to try to toss them out of power right away. In a sense, it effectively did that, leaving them only in control of Gaza. So if the idea was to moderate Hamas, it certainly didn't have that effect. If the idea was to defeat Hamas, it didn't really have that effect.

I would guess what the Bush administration did was to allow Hamas to avoid making the hard choices. When they did try a slight shift, as they did when they formed a national-unity government with Fatah, they were basically shut out by the Bush administration. So in a sense, the message that Hamas picked up was: "Because half-steps don't work, it's probably not even worth trying."

RFE/RL: So ultimately, is there any significance in Obama's timing -- that he called Abbas first?

Brown: I think it is fairly striking that he reaches out to a leader who is -- according to one argument -- no longer even president, and heading a government that doesn't really govern, a state that doesn't really exist yet as a state, and somebody who is, in many ways, in a very weak position.

The one thing that I can think of, if there's any symbolism involved, would be this: Mahmud Abbas was very much sidelined by the Israeli-Hamas war, in the sense [that] he wasn't a party to it. And so it may be just an affirmation of [Abbas's] relevance again.