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US-Israel collision averted over Middle East peace, but for how long?

On the eve of a Netanyahu-Obama meeting, the decision by Hamas to join Fatah in a Palestinian coalition has delayed, at least, a US-Israel clash over competing visions for the Middle East peace process.

By Staff writer / May 17, 2011

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver statements to the media at the White House in Washington in this September 1, 2010 file photo.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Washington

The category five diplomatic storm predicted for the White House Friday when President Obama greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been sharply downgraded – courtesy of an unlikely assist from the radical Palestinian organization Hamas.

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The suddenly clearing skies over US-Israel relations may last only a few months, with pressures likely to build once again as the Palestinians, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, seek to do an end run around the moribund US-sponsored Middle East peace process by winning a declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.

But for now, the strong turbulence that many regional analysts predicted – and officials from both the American and Israeli sides worried – was in store for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting is considered much less likely since Hamas’s surprise decision to join Mr. Abbas’s rival organization, Fatah, in a proposed reconciliation government.

At one point both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu – who on May 24 will address a joint session of Congress, a notably pro-Israel venue – were said to be mulling rival peace plans to be unveiled over a few days of intense focus on the Middle East.

At the State Department on Thursday, Obama is set to deliver a follow-up speech to his June 2009 Cairo address, and both leaders are on the agenda to address the annual Washington meeting of AIPAC, or American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the top pro-Israel lobby in the US.

But uncertainty over the Fatah-Hamas deal – will it hold, will Palestinian elections actually be held, and will Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce violence, enter a unity government? – has provided both Obama and Netanyahu with breathing space – some analysts call it a pretext – for putting off major peace proposals.

Very low expectations

“I’m expecting almost nothing from [Netanyahu] and very little from the president,” says Arthur Hughes, a foreign policy expert with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington and a former State Department official who worked on the peace process under the Clinton administration. The threat posed by “Hamas will be the leitmotif of what [Netanyahu] says to the Congress,” Mr. Hughes says, and Obama “decided even before the [Fatah-Hamas reconciliation] ‘That’s it, it’s all about [reelection in] ‘12 now.’ ”

Others who believe the moment is not “ripe” for any major peace initiatives concur that both leaders will largely steer away from a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

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