RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, might be forgiven for thinking he is in a rare position of strength as he prepares for his first visit with Barack Obama, the US president, today in Washington. There is certainly unusual agreement between Mr Abbas, who is also president of the Palestinian Authority, and Mr Obama on what, at least in the short term, is required to relaunch a serious peace process.
To wit: the new Right-wing Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, must commit itself to a two-state solution as the end of a peace process, settlement construction in the West Bank must end and Israel must evacuate so-called settlement outposts, those settlements established without explicit government backing. These are all Israeli commitments under the US-brokered 2003 road map for peace on which aides to Mr Abbas say he will press Mr Obama, and over which Washington and Tel Aviv appear in conflict. Mr Netanyahu has so far adroitly avoided the words "two-state solution", and ministers in his government have rejected any pressure to end construction in existing settlements.
And although Mr Netanyahu, following his meeting with Mr Obama last week, instructed his government to begin dismantling some outposts, it is at best a lacklustre effort. Of the three outposts taken down so far, one has already been re-established, a common practice for Israeli settlers who, unlike Palestinians in occupied territory, are beholden to civil rather than martial law and answer to the Israeli police rather than the army.
As for Palestinian commitments under the road map, Mr Abbas will feel that he has done all he can. Under US supervision, Palestinian security forces have been trained and deployed in all major West Bank towns and cities, and their performance has been praised not only by Keith Dayton, the US lieutenant general who oversees their training, but also in Israeli security circles. The PA's security forces have been particularly active in clamping down on Hamas activists, but whether through cajoling or unspoken agreement, there currently seems to be little appetite among Palestinian factions in the West Bank to launch any military operations against Israeli targets.
"Abbas and Obama are in complete agreement," said Mkhaimer Abusada, a Palestinian analyst. "At the same time, no one can deny that Israel is under political pressure from the US." Nevertheless, it is hard to shake off the impression that Mr Abbas is running merely to stand still. In objective terms, his position has never been weaker. Domestically, Palestinians continue to be divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Unity talks in Cairo have foundered on the unwillingness of either side to give ground, while the lack of any clear signal from the international community that it will deal with a potential unity government including Hamas has only hindered progress.
Perhaps more ominously for Mr Abbas, the hastily assembled government that was thrown together two weeks ago was not only rejected by Hamas but also by elements in his own Fatah movement, many of whom are increasingly disillusioned with the failure to convene Fatah's general conference and elect new blood to the movement's leadership. The combination of increased settlement activity, said Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister of planning, combined with the end to any resistance against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, has "to a large extent weakened and marginalised Fatah and other PLO factions" and tilted the balance of power further in the favour of Hamas.
Indeed, Mr Khatib argued, should any military operations be launched against Israel in the West Bank it is more likely that they will come from Fatah than Hamas in an effort to restore some of the secular movement's popularity in the absence of political progress. Certainly, ensuring discernible progress towards an end to the Israeli occupation remains Mr Abbas's greatest challenge. But in Israel, Mr Abbas now faces a right-wing coalition government that is not even willing to pay lip service to the peace process, as was the case when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Instead, Israel is playing hardball, setting up new conditions for negotiating with the Palestinians, including a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state", an indirect negation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Mr Abbas, therefore, is increasingly looking to the United States as his main source of support. But while the Obama administration is more accommodating, Washington is still only applying verbal pressure on Israel to abide by commitments it accepted, but never abided by, six years ago. Six years is a long time, and the interim has been used by Israel in an attempt to move the goalposts. Construction on Israel's separation barrier, which snakes in and out of occupied territory, continues apace and is more mooted as a potential future border, leaving major settlement blocs as well as Jerusalem inside Israel.
Ahmed Qureia, a former Palestinian prime minister, Fatah stalwart and potential rival to Mr Abbas, on Tuesday rejected allowing the settlement blocks to become part of Israel, suggesting instead that settlers become citizens of Palestine. It is not a popular suggestion among Palestinians, but it is more popular than giving up significant areas of Palestinian land. Mr Abbas, often seen as too accommodating to US pressure, will have to win its support for a similarly resolute stance. He will want to secure Washington's commitment not only to increase pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction, but to begin reversing the settlement process.
Time is of the essence for Mr Abbas. Israel can play for time and the more time Israel plays for, the more it bolsters Hamas's argument that negotiations are a waste of it. But US officials have asked for more time before the administration lays out its own policy on the conflict. Mr Abbas will hope that it will not take too long. email@example.com