Israel and the Palestinian Authority have moved further in a few days of intensive negotiations than the two sides in the Northern Ireland conflict did in “many, many months,” US special envoy George Mitchell said on Wednesday night, following the second consecutive day of the talks.

Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998, was unusually upbeat in his characterizations of the meetings, saying “serious and substantive discussions” were well under way, and that the talks started at a “very rapid pace.”

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While stressing there were many differences between the conflict in Northern Ireland and the one here, he said that it was a long time into the 22- month negotiations in Northern Ireland before “there was a single, serious, substantive discussion on the major issues that separated the parties.”

But in the current talks, he said, “within a matter of literally days since this process began, the leaders have engaged directly, vigorously with what are among the most difficult and sensitive issues that they will confront. The US believes this is a strong indictor of their sincerity and seriousness of purpose.”

Mitchell said he was fully aware that engaging with the issues was not the same as solving them, but that it was a necessary prerequisite. The manner in which the parties were dealing with the issues was “extremely impressive,” he said.

“They are serious, they mean business,” Mitchell said. “They have differences, but we believe they can be overcome.”

Mitchell’s comments to the press followed hours of discussions at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and their respective staffs. Mitchell’s remarks seemed to indicate that the sides were not only talking about how to overcome the settlement construction moratorium, but also about core issues such as security, Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

He refused, however, to shed any light on the nature of the compromise being worked out on the moratorium issue, other than to say the issue was being tackled, and that progress was being made.

Netanyahu’s position on the moratorium ending on September 26, The Jerusalem Post has learned, did not change during Wednesday’s meetings.

In recent days, he has discussed the possibility of building quietly for natural growth in the settlements, in line with the guidelines used for construction under the Olmert and Sharon governments.

With terror and rocket attacks increasing as the talks progress, Mitchell said that Netanyahu and Abbas “reiterated their condemnation of violence that targets innocents,” and that the goal of “two states for two peoples” can only be reached through negotiations.

The Palestinian institution-building that had taken place on the ground over the last three years had laid an important foundation, making possible “realistic negotiations and the realistic prospect of success in those negotiations,” the US envoy said.

The talks Mitchell sounded so upbeat about started when Abbas arrived at the Prime Minister’s Residence in the afternoon. In the guest book, Abbas – who had not been in that structure for more than two years – wrote: “Today I returned to this home after a long absence, with the hope of achieving lasting peace in the whole region, and especially peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

The trilateral Abbas- Netanyahu-Clinton meeting was preceded by a short photo-opportunity. Clinton led the leaders to the patio, with Netanyahu in the middle, and Abbas behind him. They stood in front of five flags – three Israeli flags, a Palestinian flag and an American one.

The presence of the Palestinian flag put an end to speculation about whether Netanyahu would fly the Palestinian banner in his residence, a practice prime minister Ehud Olmert initiated when he negotiated with Abbas.

A senior official in Netanyahu’s office said that Netanyahu hosted Abbas with “friendship and generosity, including the placement of the flag.”

But, the source said – as if the placement of the flag could have had an impact on the content of the negotiations – that in the talks themselves, Netanyahu remained firm on Israel’s security needs. For Netanyahu, “there are no compromises” on this matter, the source said.

No statements were given at the three way photo-op, but Netanyahu – when asked if progress was being made – said, “We are working on it.”

The process would take a “lot of work,” and he was glad “to have the opportunity,” Netanyahu said.

The Prime Minister’s Office, which is remaining completely mum about the talks, said in a statement that during the discussions, Netanyahu raised the issue of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. According to the statement, Netanyahu spoke of the need to work through all channels for Schalit’s release, and to demand that the International Red Cross, or another recognized body, visit Schalit in Gaza immediately. This fed speculation that in addition to Schalit, the sides were also talking about a release of Palestinian prisoners as a gesture to the PA.

The Netanyahu-Abbas-Clinton meeting was the second such parley in two days. Beforehand, Netanyahu met with Clinton for an hour, and then was joined by their respective teams. The Israeli team included chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, military attache Brig.-Gen. Yohanan Locker, senior adviser Ron Dermer and ambassador to the US Michael Oren.

The US team included Mitchell, his deputy David Hale, National Security Council member Dan Shapiro, and Ambassador James Cunningham.

Earlier in the day, Clinton met separately with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Sources in Lieberman’s office said the hourlong meeting was held in a “good atmosphere,” and that the discussions were “frank.”

Lieberman is an outspoken critic of the current process, having said recently that he didn’t believe it would be possible to reach a comprehensive agreement in this generation, or the next.

Clinton began her visit in Israel with a meeting with President Shimon Peres, and – like Mitchell later in the day – sounded upbeat about determination of the leaders to reach an agreement.

The secretary of state said that Netanyahu and Abbas were “getting down to business,” and had begun to “grapple with the core issues that can only be solved in face-to-face negotiations.”

Clinton, who has been intensely involved in the process over the last few weeks, said the US would stand by the two men as they made difficult decisions, and “we will be an active and sustained partner throughout the process.


“This is the time, and these are the leaders, she said, adding that she believed the two leaders were “serious” about reaching an agreement.

“Thankfully,” Clinton said, “we now have with Prime Minister Netanyahu a leader who understands how important it is to move forward, and as he has said, we also have a Palestinian president who shares that determination.”

Netanyahu, at the relaunch of the direct talks in Washington earlier this month, called Abbas his “partner in peace.”

Clinton is scheduled to meet with Abbas on Thursday in Ramallah, before going to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah II.

 

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