President Barack Obama sat down Thursday in Washington with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the third in a series of Middle East-related meetings that have included Jordan's King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well.
These meetings come in advance of an important speech Mr. Obama will deliver in Cairo on June 4, designed to re-launch the Middle East peace process leading to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question, as well as seeking to improve general U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
It was important for Mr. Obama to talk with Mr. Abbas, although there were some twists to the meeting. First, although Mr. Abbas was elected Palestinian president in 2005, his term expired in January of this year. He extended it by a year unilaterally, a move that was not accepted by Hamas, the other Palestinian group, which controls Gaza and which won the Palestinian elections against Fatah, Mr. Abbas' party, in 2006.
A second matter that is relevant to the future of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the need for the Palestinians to achieve a greater degree of unity among themselves before going into serious negotiations with the Israelis. The Egyptians have struggled mightily to get Fatah and Hamas to work together, in at least five meetings in Cairo, but, so far, without success.
The third matter still very much on the table is the future of the hundreds of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, both lands that Israel seized in the 1967 war. Most or all of the West Bank would go to the Palestinians in an agreement; the Golan Heights would go to Syria in any accord reached between Israel and Syria.
At one time the question was the Israeli government withdrawing all of its settlers from the West Bank. In recent years, the number of settlers and settlements has continued to grow, with no action on the part of the United States in spite of the barrier to an agreement that development constitutes. Now, discussion seems to turn on freezing expansion of settler presence and construction, as opposed to getting them out of the West Bank altogether to provide land for a state for the Palestinians - the "two-state" plan - and resolution of the conflict.
Mr. Obama has clearly decided to address this now 61-year-old problem. His meetings so far have likely served to underline how important, but how difficult, a task he has set for the United States under his leadership as president.