President Obama is kicking off talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas today, holding meetings with each of the leaders. The sitdowns follow an attack in the West Bank yesterday during which a Palestinian shooter killed four Israeli settlers. Obama will also speak with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II before a dinner with the whole gang this evening.
Trilateral talks start tomorrow with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton running the show (she met with Netanyahu and Abbas for preparatory talks yesterday). Special envoy George Mitchell has given a hint of what’s to come. He thinks it’s possible for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an accord within a year and called Netanyahu’s proposal to meet with Abbas every two weeks “a sensible approach which we hope is undertaken.” Washington would be sure to be “physically represented in every single meeting.”
One actor will be missing from this round at least. Mitchell commented that “We do not expect Hamas to play a role in this immediate process.” That might be because Hamas, which governs part of the Palestinian territories—Gaza—and is considered a terrorist organization by Washington, has officially rejected the talks. But Mitchell said that Hamas is more than welcome to join the discussion “once they comply with the basic requirements of democracy and non-violence.”
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Iraq today, the day after combat operations there officially ended. He’ll attend a ceremony for General Ray Odierno who is being replaced as commander of troops in the country by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. Gates, following Obama’s speech about the pullout of combat troops, said that we’re no longer at war: “We have moved into the final phase of our engagement in Iraq.” He added that Iraq has the potential to be “the core of significant change in this whole region” if it “ends up a democratic country.” But only time will tell.
One sticking point is of course the ongoing government-formation deadlock. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen joined in the chorus calling for movement in the process. He’s concerned that “in time, without that government standing up, that certainly opens the door for tensions to rise.” Interestingly, Lloyd Austin is Mullen’s former senior adviser.
Amid the flurry of drawing down in Iraq and ramping the peace process up, another sticky world situation is being pushed into the wings. Today, Jim Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Ambassador Sung Kim, the special envoy for the Six-Party Talks, will sit down with China’s representative for Korean Peninsula issues, Ambassador Wu Dawei. The group is going to talk about how to make progress with North Korea and will likely touch on the recent trip North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made to China.