Why has the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted an invitation to come to Washington next month to discuss ways to overcome the hurdle placed by Israel before Palestinian-Israeli negotiations can resume?
The impression here is that the US and Palestinian positions are not far apart on the steps that ought to be adopted by the hawkish government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before serious peace negotiations can begin.
It is mind-boggling, certainly for the Palestinians, to believe that Israel is really sincere about its desire for a final settlement. Why does Israel continue to come up with obstacles like starting new housing projects in Arab-owned areas of occupied Jerusalem or insist that a sovereign Palestinian state should be demilitarised and accept an Israeli military base alongside the River Jordan? The river separates Palestine from Jordan with which Israel has a peace treaty.
A key member of the Obama administration, US Ambassador Susan E. Rice, has recently underlined the American position before a large audience of US officials, Congressmen and diplomats attending the annual gala marking the 25th anniversary of the Arab American Institute.
High on the administration's agenda, she underlined, is an Arab-Israeli peace and the "determination to reach a comprehensive peace in the Middle East — central to which is a two-state solution". This goal, she stressed, is of "vital interest" to the US.
"Through good faith negotiations," she went on, "the parties can mutually agree to an outcome that ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognised borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel's security requirements."
Her punchline followed: "Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot be allowed to prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognised by the international community. Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli [colony-building] activity. Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes."
What more can Obama and Abbas come up with? Israelis, and some of their key friends in the US, have lately been urging, somewhat childishly, the American president to visit Israel as a goodwill gesture, just as he did when he went to Cairo where he delivered a pace-setting speech shortly after his inauguration addressing the Arab and Muslim world.
But Obama, being the father of two children, must recognise that undertaking such a risk may precipitate some requests from the other side. The Palestinians may then want him to visit the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.
Moreover, such a gesture some fear may contribute to Israel's waywardness and continued flouting of international obligations as has been recently, to cite one example, in denying Palestinians in the Occupied Territories the freedom of expression.
Four out of 10 Palestinian males have reportedly spent some time in Israeli prisons. "That's about 40 per cent of all Palestinian males," writes Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a close relative of the Israeli prime minister, in The Christian Science Monitor.
Most importantly it is hoped that Obama will not twist Abbas' arm to make additional gestures lest the Palestinian president lose face among his beleaguered people. Of deep concern is the view that the Palestinians should accept the establishment of their state within temporary borders. If anything, Abbas should be rewarded for tolerating the Israeli intransigence by a warm welcome, recorded by the White House media.
Although press reports have indicated that the Israeli government has now accepted to freeze colony-building in occupied east Jerusalem, it is incumbent upon Obama to insist that Netanyahu should level with his people and the world about his intentions there.
After all some 180,000 Israelis have illegally moved since the 1967 war into new Jewish neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem. And about 2,000 more have moved into occupied east Jerusalem where the Palestinians plan to establish their capital.
This Israeli stalling should not be tolerated any longer and here the American president ought to seriously consider tougher language and action against the hawkish regime there.
Obama, unlike his predecessors should not be concerned by any hostility from within the American Jewish community since 78 per cent of American Jewish voters have voted for him in the presidential election in 2008.
Netanyahu is obviously afraid of losing his office should he live up to international expectations, now unanimously calling for peace in the Middle East. It is time for the Israelis to weigh in the price they are paying for the continued turbulence in the region.
(George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)