TEL AVIV // The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be getting a push forward. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, yesterday accepted an invitation by Barack Obama, the US president, to meet tomorrow for the first time since the Israeli right-wing leader took power in March. Mr Obama, who has repeatedly stressed his commitment to work at ending the six-decade-old conflict, will first meet separately with the two men on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York before convening the joint session. No major announcements are expected after the meeting, according to an administration official, who noted that "it is always possible for things to change".
The invitation to the summit has come as a surprise because just three days ago, such an encounter had seemed improbable between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In recent weeks, Washington fervently worked towards clinching a package deal under which Israel would agree to suspend construction of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and Arab nations would in return take steps to normalise ties with Israel. Such an agreement was expected to pave the way for the tripartite meeting this week.
But on Friday, George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, returned to Washington empty-handed after spending the whole week in the troubled region unsuccessfully trying to wrap up details of the deal. As recently as Friday, aides to Mr Abbas were still repeating his refusal to attend a joint session with Mr Netanyahu without a complete settlement freeze, which the Israeli premier was adamantly opposing. Even Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said the White House could not set a date for such a meeting to take place.
There was little indication yesterday about the circumstances that had in the end prompted the sit-down. Furthermore, there was also doubt about whether the summit will lead the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Talks between the two sides have been stalled since Israel launched attacks in the Gaza Strip in December and January. Both Palestinian and Israel officials expressed low expectations ahead of the summit.
Richard Murphy, who was an assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs under former president Ronald Reagan, said the announcement of the summit after a week when peace efforts seemed to go nowhere is "surprising". "We may have all got too gloomy a reading on what the Israeli and Palestinian positions have been," he said. "This is being optimistic, but maybe the president believes he has something he can use to leverage the two of them back to the table."
An official close to Mr Abbas who spoke on condition of anonymity was quoted by news agencies as saying that the Palestinian leader agreed to the gathering because he did not want to let down Mr Obama. The official said: "It will be a formal meeting because we don't want to disappoint the American administration, which wants it held." Still, he added that it will not spur a resumption of peace talks because the Palestinians are holding firm that Israel freeze all settlement construction on land they want for their future state. Another Palestinian official said that the gathering will most likely benefit Mr Netanyahu, who would be provided with a photo opportunity but do little towards advancing the peace process.
The meeting comes with serious risks if it does not "produce momentum for serious talks", said Mr Murphy. Such risks are greatest for Mr Abbas, whose reputation has been damaged by failing to secure concessions from Israel. "Deepening the lack of confidence [in the peace process] is not going to help anyone," he added. Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator, suggested yesterday that Israel had been the main stumbling block to arranging the tripartite session, saying that it will be "an opportunity for President Obama to listen to the different points of view and to understand who is blocking the negotiations".
Mr Erekat added: "For us, it is Israel who is blocking them because it refuses to apply the provisions of the road map." He referred to the 2003 US-backed peace plan that charted a course towards Palestinian statehood and called for Israel to cease all settlement-building. According to Mr Erekat, there was no set agenda yet for the meeting. While a statement from Mr Netanyahu's office said the premier "warmly accepted the invitation", officials close to him conveyed pessimism about the gathering's outcome. One Israeli official, who declined to be identified, was quoted as telling reporters: "There'll be some kind of handshake because this is what Obama wants. But it's not going anywhere longer term with all due respect to Obama, this is not realistic. Everyone wants a process, but nobody actually wants peace - because peace, you have to pay for."
Analysts expect Mr Obama to address the dispute over the settlement freeze during the gathering. Washington has urged Israel to suspend all building in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem for at least one year, while Israel is prepared to only partly halt construction in the West Bank - but not in East Jerusalem - for no more than nine months. Palestinians are also demanding that Israel be committed to reaching permanent agreements on all the key issues in the conflict, including the fate of Jerusalem, the plight of Palestinian refugees and borders.
Mr Netanyahu, whose predominantly right-wing, pro-settler governing coalition allies oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, prefers interim improvements in the economy and security conditions of the West Bank. The negotiations involving Washington's call for a settlement freeze will also be conducted on other levels. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, will meet today with Robert Gates, US defence secretary, and he is expected to address the issue. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, will also be in New York this week, where he will meet with several US officials.
Mr Abbas's standing among Palestinians could be strengthened by a breakthrough in peace talks, whose lack of progress has been used by the rival Hamas group to discredit him. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, from which it routed forces loyal to Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement in 2007, yesterday warned Mr Abbas not to make any concessions to Israel during the talks on the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, also cautioned Mr Abbas during a speech on the Muslim festival of Eid al Fitr that Hamas would not recognise any compromise agreement that Mr Abbas may reach with Israel. Condemning the summit, Mr Haniyeh said that "it does not obligate the Palestinian people to anything". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Steven Stanek in Washington