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entries tagged with: Mahmoud Abbas

 

Abbas’ threat to resign sparks fears

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 13 November 2009

JERUSALEM – Just as he hoped it would, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to resign has concentrated the minds.

Both Israel’s prime minister and the U.S. president are considering new ways to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bid to keep the two-state vision alive. Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama both fear that Abbas’ departure could lead to instability, chaos, and even violence in the Palestinian-populated territories.

With the process deadlocked ever since Israel went into a new election cycle more than a year ago, an element of desperate brinkmanship is in the air. Abbas’ threat to resign is aimed at pressuring the United States and Israel to come back with a serious offer.

News Analysis

Abbas, 74, announced last week that he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for January. One of the main reasons he gave was a profound sense of betrayal by the U.S. administration after Obama dialed back the pressure on Israel for a full settlement freeze.

“We had high hopes in President Obama — they had a very clear attitude on settlements — but it turned out that the American administration favored Israel,” Abbas declared.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shown speaking in Ramallah on Oct. 24, is insisting that his decision to resign is not a tactical ploy. Issam Rimawi/Flash 90/JTA

Abbas had understood from Obama that he would force Israel to stop all settlement construction and then launch peace talks. The Palestinian leader believed the policy would push Netanyahu into a corner and possibly even topple his Likud-led government for one more likely to cut a deal with the Palestinians.

Taking his cue from Obama, Abbas made a full freeze of settlement construction a precondition for talks.

But when the Americans backed down several months later after Netanyahu offered a slowdown but not a freeze, Abbas was left high and dry. He held to a condition he could not abandon without losing face among his people, but he could not approach the negotiating table so long as he stuck to it.

The last straw was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement early last week aligning herself with the Israeli view of the settlement issue. Clinton backed Israel’s claim that the Palestinians had never before made a settlement freeze a condition for talks, and she praised Netanyahu’s agreement to restrictions on settlement building in the west bank as “unprecedented.”

Clinton’s forthright language stunned the Palestinians. For Abbas it meant his gamble on a settlement freeze had failed. A few days later he announced his intention to step down.

While insisting that his decision was not a tactical ploy, he raised the specter of the two-state solution for which he had worked so hard slipping away.

Abbas also finds himself in a no-win situation with regard to Hamas. If he backs down on settlements, the fundamentalists will accuse him of being an Israeli-American lackey. If he resigns, they will say his resignation is proof of their thesis that negotiations with the Zionist enemy can only lead to grief.

Abbas had hoped through Egyptian mediation to reach a national reconciliation deal with Hamas. That would have been the basis for truly representative national elections in the west bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. But now Hamas says it will not contest elections in the west bank and will prevent balloting in Gaza.

For Abbas, who had hoped to regain legitimacy as leader of all the Palestinian people through the ballot box, this is another source of deep frustration.

A third source of frustration is Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize the progress Abbas made with the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Abbas says he was very close to an agreement with Olmert: On borders, he says, they were already reviewing detailed maps, and on the thorny question of the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees, Abbas says the differences were only over numbers.

Abbas would like to continue negotiations from the point Olmert left off. But by insisting on “no preconditions,” Netanyahu seems to be indicating that he wants to start from scratch.

To break the impasse, P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is considering declaring independence unilaterally if the United States agrees to back a self-declared Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. But other voices in the Palestinian camp are talking about a return to armed struggle and a new intifada.

What makes the situation even more volatile is the lack of an obvious successor to Abbas if he goes through with his threat to stand down. The front-runner is the jailed former leader of the young Fatah military cadres, Marwan Barghouti, who would likely take a more militant line toward Israel — if he’s even able to compete.

Abbas’ move has forced early-decision time on the main players: Obama must decide whether to work with Netanyahu to appease Abbas — for example, by getting the Israelis to release Fatah prisoners and make a serious peace offer — to disengage altogether until both parties are ready to talk business, or to shake things up by putting a detailed American peace plan on the table.

Netanyahu must decide whether to seize the moment to launch a major peace initiative or face the consequences of a resignation by Abbas that could spark chaos on the Palestinian side. If he really wants to persuade Abbas to stay, he will have to make a far-reaching offer on settlements or on substance.

Although there has been no hard evidence yet, confidants say he is ready to go much further than most people expect.

The next few weeks could be crucial.

JTA

 
 

Palestinian threat to declare statehood seeks to put onus on Israel

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 20 November 2009

JERUSALEM – Frustrated by a lack of progress toward statehood, the Palestinians are considering taking their case to the United Nations.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had hopes a more Muslim-friendly U.S. administration would press Israel into a peace deal on terms favorable to the Palestinians. When this failed to materialize, Abbas announced plans to resign.

Now he is following up with a threat to go to the U.N. Security Council to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

Abbas’ thinking is that such a move would resolve the core border issue in a single stroke and confirm the illegality of Jewish settlements in the west bank. All that would be left to negotiate would be the terms of Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from territories already internationally recognized as Palestinian, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.

By using the United Nations, the Palestinians are turning to the arena where they feel strongest. They are hoping to exploit their near-automatic U.N. majority to achieve statehood on their terms. They have enjoyed great successes in the United Nations: the passage of the “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975 and, more recently, endorsement of the Goldstone report on last winter’s Gaza war, which accuses Israel, as well as Hamas, of war crimes.

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Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said European consuls reacted favorably to backing the Palestinian Authority’s idea about asking the U.N. Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state. Nati hohat/Flash90/JTA

The latest move appears to be a tactic to pressure Israel to come to the negotiating table with a much more favorable offer or face a very difficult international situation.

What Abbas wants are terms of reference for negotiations with the territorial outcome virtually guaranteed either by international fiat or through prior agreement with Israel. To avert Abbas’ U.N. gambit, Israel would have to agree to give up most of the west bank ahead of talks.

So far, the Netanyahu government is not willing to put such an offer on the table.

The Palestinian threat to take unilateral action, however, drew an unusually nuanced response this week from Prime Mi nister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the one hand, he warned that it would have dire consequences. On the other, he suggested that if the Palestinians would only enter negotiations with him, they would get a very good deal.

Speaking Sunday at a forum in Jerusalem sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Netanyahu said that any unilateral moves by the Palestinians would “unravel the framework of agreements between us and bring unilateral steps from Israel.”

Close associates spelled out what this might mean: Freed of its commitments to the Palestinians in prior accords, Israel might see its way to annexing large settlement blocs in the west bank and suspending all economic cooperation with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Netanyahu held up the prospect of boundless prosperity for both sides if they negotiated a peace deal, and he urged the Palestinian leadership to try him.

“If we start talks, we can surprise the world,” he said.

Netanyahu insists he is ready to come to the peace table in a spirit of generosity and that on his recent visit to Washington, he told President Obama just how serious he was about making peace.

The question is, did Netanyahu give Obama a commitment to go all the way with the Palestinians if they agree to a number of basic Israeli conditions? If not, will he do so now to give U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell something to bring the Palestinians to the table and persuade them to drop their U.N. move?

For now, there is no sign that the Palestinians are ready to back off. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat summoned 27 European consuls to Ramallah on Monday to officially request their backing for the Security Council move. Afterward, Erekat claimed the initial response had been favorable. The Palestinians also say they already have the support of Russia and China.

Clearly, if and when it comes to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, the American position will be key.

Israeli leaders say they are convinced that any resolution unilaterally defining the contours of Palestinian statehood will encounter an American veto. Therefore, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, there was little chance of such a resolution passing.

The Palestinians, however, suggest that the Americans have yet to decide one way or the other. They say that when they put their plan to U.S. officials last week, administration officials promised to consider it. Moreover, if the Palestinians have the support of all the permanent members of the Security Council except Washington, they still may proceed, despite an anticipated American veto, to embarrass Israel and the United States.

The ball is now is the U.S.-Israel court. To pre-empt what could be a dangerous Palestinian move with potentially destructive consequences, the Americans and Israelis may have to work together on an attractive peace package with clear goals and a clear time frame.

JTA

 
 

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Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 

In response to vague talks, Jewish groups deliver vague message

WASHINGTON – Two weeks before their launch, the promised renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has already engendered a first: a joint statement of welcome by mainstream U.S. Jewish and Palestinian groups.

“We congratulate the Obama administration on succeeding in getting direct negotiations back on track,” said a statement issued jointly last Friday by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Task Force on Palestine. “Both parties must now show courage, flexibility, and persistence in order to move towards a negotiated end of conflict agreement.”

Other than its joint letterhead, the document was mostly unremarkable — as were many of the reactions to the announcement — in part, because Jewish leaders were endeavoring to make sense of the vague outline of the proposed talks. The terms of the talks, set to begin Sept. 2, have yet to be determined, including whether and how the sides will discuss final status issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, and refugees.

In an off-the-record conference call with top White House staff just before the Sabbath last Friday, Jewish leaders pressed for details: Is there a deadline? Will there be preconditions? In response, according to people on the call, they got little more than the vague back-and-forth that had characterized the announcement of the talks earlier in the day by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

How often would the lead parties to the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meet, one participant asked — and how often would the teams meet?

“Periodically,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran policy official said, referring to the leaders. “Regularly,” he said of the negotiating teams.

Dan Shapiro, the top National Security Council staffer handling Israel and its neighbors, broke in to add that the talks would be “intensive.”

What about the yearlong time frame announced by Clinton and the top Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, another Jewish leader asked. Was that a deadline? A goal?

“Feasible,” said David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy. A year was the “objective.”

What about the U.S. role?

“Very active,” said Hale. But then: “We will need to play a role, but they still need direct talks.”

Much was made by the administration officials of the dinner that is to take place Sept. 1, bringing together President Obama, Netanyahu, Abbas, and the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders. “The dinner will help to restore trust,” Ross said.

Administration officials have suggested that the outlines will be clearer after Netanyahu, Abbas, and Clinton meet on Sept. 2.

P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, told reporters Monday that extending Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement building would be on the agenda that day. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks without such an extension.

“The issue of settlements, the issue of the moratorium, will be — has been — a topic of discussion and will be a topic of discussion when the leaders meet with Secretary Clinton on Sept. 2,” he said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who has been closely tracking the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, said he is confident that with months of indirect talks behind them, the leaders would be able to come up with a coherent outline for the direct negotiations.

“If there isn’t total clarity about the ground rules yet, there surely will be before Sept. 2,” Saperstein said. “They bring months and months of talks behind the scenes that will make a major contribution.”

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wondered nonetheless if the sides were prepared for success. If the talks work out, he said, Netanyahu and Abbas would have to pitch major compromises to skeptical constituencies — Netanyahu to the hard-liners who support him in government, and Abbas to a Palestinian electorate he hopes to wean away from Hamas, the terrorist group that continues to seek his ouster.

“You sometimes get what you wish for,” Reich said, referring to Netanyahu’s vocal insistence for months on direct talks. “But then you’ve got to put up or face the consequences.”

Given the vagaries surrounding the proposed talks, it was no surprise that the response from organizations was as noncommittal as the Obama administration’s announcement, focusing principally on the benefits of face-time.

“Sitting together, face-to-face, leader-to-leader, in direct negotiations is the only path to achieving the ultimate goal of peace, reconciliation, and the end of all claims,” AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, noted in a statement.

That message was echoed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “We welcome the beginning of direct, face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that will address the complicated and difficult issues in the hope of bringing about an end to the long-standing conflict.”

There were subtle indications among the statements of how groups might act should the talks take off — or should they break down. AIPAC made clear whom it would blame if such a breakdown occurs: “For talks to succeed, the P.A. must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table, and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.”

The joint statement by the American Task Force on Palestine and the consensus-driven Jewish Council for Public Affairs was more careful to balance responsibility between both sides. “Both sides must take concrete steps in the short term to instill greater mutual confidence in this process and to demonstrate resolve to stay at the negotiating table as long as it takes to achieve an agreement,” the statement said.

On background, Jewish organizational leaders said that the talks — at their launch, at least — were so vaguely defined that top pro-Israel officials would not even consider cutting short their pre-Labor Day vacations in order to meet with Netanyahu when his team arrives on Sept. 1.

JTA

 
 

Israeli-Palestinian preview

Who’s coming to dinner at the White House?

WASHINGTON – The White House dinner on Sept. 1, prior to the official launch of renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the negotiations.

“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, said in a conference call last Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.

Unless, that is, it turns into a food fight.

Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will remain unknown. What we do know is who will be there and where they’re coming from. Here’s a preview.

Benjamin Netanyahu – Israeli prime minister

The proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60-year-old Netanyahu has engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under U.S. pressure. Last time, in 1997, while facing then-President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at bay. Also, his revered father, Benzion Netanyahu, was known not to be happy with the concession.

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Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyau, right, seen here with U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, welcomed Mitchell’s announcement of new direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/GPO

Having completed a slow climb back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.

Netanyahu wants to get security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues like Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether or not he’ll extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that is set to expire in late September. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said he’ll quit the talks.

Mahmoud Abbas – Palestinian Authority president

Abbas, 75, is a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, Abbas has endeavored to reestablish his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the inevitable repository of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

Negotiations are the only way for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood. Abbas insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.

Barack Obama – president of the United States

It is tempting to cast the haste with which President Obama, 49, has organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect of November congressional elections that seem likely to result in losses for the Democratic party.

However, such an analysis would ignore the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign policy strategy in the region. For the United States, having the talks now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby sustain Arab support for U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.

A peace treaty also would signal U.S. strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab governments some leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a U.S. effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.

The U.S. posture has been to insist that these are direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II

The United States sees both these figures as critical to making the talks — and, eventually, Palestinian statehood — work.

Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a major entry into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train the P.A. police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian economy. Both countries are Israel’s only neighbors officially at peace with the Jewish state.

Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power smoothly to his son, Gamal Mubarak; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak rule.

Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the west bank would also help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton – U.S. Secretary of State

Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning Sept. 2, she will host the first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since 2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton aides have leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role, saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent front-line exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms treaties with Russia. Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return, despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of a large housing start in eastern Jerusalem. Clinton long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel — ties that Israelis feel Obama lacks.

It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent part of her daughter Chelsea’s wedding this summer carried aloft in a chair during the dancing of the hora.

JTA

 
 

Will talks be about appearance or substance?

WASHINGTON – It’s a peace conference where nothing is off the table — or on it, for that matter.

The Obama administration’s invitation to Palestinian and Israeli leaders to launch direct talks on Sept. 2 attempts to reconcile Israeli demands for no preconditions with Palestinian demands that the talks address all the core issues: final borders, the fate of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

News Analysis

The administration does this by calling on the sides to “resolve final-status issues” without saying when and how these issues should come up, if at all.

The vagueness of the invitation issued last Friday underscored the distance between the two sides, as well as the immediate political and regional pressures that have lit a fire under U.S. efforts to restart the peace process. Whether or not the peace talks will be able to move from vague outlines to concrete resolutions remains to be seen. For now, merely having direct talks is an achievement, particularly for the United States and Israel.

For the United States, having the talks gives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a reason to continue a partial settlement moratorium, thereby sustaining Arab support for U.S. policies. This support is seen as important as Washington attempts to juggle emerging crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions. President Obama also wants a process under way before November, when his Democratic Party is likely to face a tough battle at the ballot boxes during midterm congressional elections.

For Netanyahu, the talks are a way to demonstrate that his government is interested in pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Among the Palestinian leadership, however, there are deep concerns that Washington and Jerusalem are more interested in the appearance of talks than in getting down to the nitty-gritty of the final-status issues. Israel has resisted Palestinian demands to discuss final-status issues and opposes any deadline for a resolution.

The discrepancies between the two sides were evident in the delicate way U.S. officials tried to treat the issue of preconditions to the talks.

“Only the parties can determine terms of reference and basis for negotiations, and they will do so when they meet and discuss these matters,” George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, said in the news conference announcing the invitations. “As you know, both we and the Quartet have previously said that the negotiations should be without preconditions.” The Quartet is the grouping that guides the Middle East peace process: the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Yet in launching the news conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to say that both of the elements Israel is resisting indeed would be on the table: Final-status issues and a deadline.

“On behalf of the United States government, I’ve invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas to meet on Sept. 2 in Washington, D.C. to re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final-status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year,” Clinton said.

Was that a deadline, a reporter asked Mitchell? Not quite, he said, adding. “We believe it can be done within a year and that is our objective.”

Then there is the matter of U.S. involvement. Mitchell insisted that the talks would be bilateral, ostensibly diminishing the U.S. role. He said the United States was ready to offer “bridging proposals” — the formulations that negotiating sides request from a moderator when talks hit a snag. But the way he put it suggested that the United States might offer such proposals even if the sides do not request them.

“This is a direct bilateral negotiation with the active and sustained support of the United States,” he said. “And we will make bridging proposals at such time as we deem necessary and appropriate.” The determined, active voice he used was not unintentional: Mitchell later repeated the phrase.

The Palestinians have been pressing for a more active U.S. role, saying that it would help balance Israel’s stronger hand as an established state with a powerful military. Israel would rather deal directly with the Palestinians, preferring not to countenance an active U.S. role that conceivably could exacerbate already delicate Israeli relations with the United States.

Not surprisingly, then, the statement from Netanyahu’s office welcoming the renewed talks — which came immediately after the announcement — did not mention final-status issues, deadlines, or U.S. intervention.

“The prime minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half,” the statement said. “He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.”

The Palestinian Authority’s response to the announcement of the talks was less than enthusiastic. It took till the end of last Friday for them to welcome the invitation to talks, and Palestinian leaders later warned that if Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze is allowed to expire in late September, the talks are off.

Netanyahu’s statement did not say what he intends to do about the freeze. Israeli officials reportedly have told their U.S. counterparts that Netanyahu would not be able to sustain the moratorium on settlement-building without the cover of peace talks. Similarly, the Arab League, which this summer provided much needed cover to Mahmoud Abbas in approving the peace talks, needs the negotiations as cover to maintain its support of the United States.

Both Mitchell and the Quartet made it clear that they expected the settlement moratorium to be extended.

“Our position on settlements is well-known and remains unchanged,” Mitchell said. “We’ve always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations.”

JTA

 
 
 
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