US pushes indirect talks amid dispute over issues

Israel wants focus to be on refugees, recognition and security, while Palestinians prefer borders and J’lem.

December 13, 2010 22:38
4 minute read.
PM Binyamin Netanyahu and US envoy George Mitchell

Netanyahu and George Mitchell 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Amid reports that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will press Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to chart out his position on borders clearly, Netanyahu made clear before his meeting with Mitchell on Monday night that the first issues he wants to tackle are recognition, security and refugees.

In a speech to the Globes Business Forum a number of hours before meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu said that to achieve peace, “the issues that are truly delaying the peace must be discussed: the question of recognition, the question of security, the question of various arrangements, refugees, etc., and of course many additional issues.”

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Mitchell arrived back in the region on Monday to discuss the core issues separately with each side in the hope that gaps could be narrowed and direct negotiations restarted.

The question of which issue to tackle first has long been a major point of dispute between the sides, with the Palestinians wanting to focus first on borders and Jerusalem, and Israel on refugees, recognition and security.

The sequence is significant, because Israel is concerned that if the Palestinians get what they want on the border issue, they will not be forthcoming on any of the issues that come later, such as refugees.

And the Palestinians argue that if they cave in up front on recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel will have no incentive to be forthcoming on borders or Jerusalem.

Mitchell, who went into the meeting with Netanyahu within hours of arriving on Monday, is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday. From there, he is to travel to Doha, and then back to Washington.

Before the meeting with Netanyahu, Mitchell said that during the direct talks that Israel and the Palestinians held for a couple of weeks in September, “both sides decided together to pursue a framework agreement that would establish the fundamental compromises on all permanent-status issues, and pave the way for a final peace treaty. That remains our goal.”

Quoting from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on Friday, Mitchell said the goal of the new American approach was to engage in good faith with both sides on the core issues and “narrow the gaps between the two.”

By doing this, he said, the parties could “begin to rebuild confidence, demonstrate their seriousness and hopefully find enough common ground on which to eventually relaunch direct negotiations and achieve that framework.”

Earlier in the day, at the Globes conference, Netanyahu welcomed the US decision not to seek an additional settlement moratorium, even though he said Israel had been prepared to look into an extension of the freeze.

“I believe that the United States has succeeded in understanding after a year and a half that we were, in fact, on a dead-end road, in a discussion that was in great measure unproductive regarding the peripheral issue of construction, of additional construction in the settlements. The United States understood that what is important is getting to the important issues, the substantial issues, including the core issues that are at the root of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.

“I welcome the fact that it made this decision, although in the discussions we conducted, we were prepared to examine an additional extension of the moratorium,” he added.

In recent days, the prime minister, reacting to criticism that Israel had said no to a simple US request to extend the settlement freeze for another 90 days, said in private meetings that Israel had not rejected the request. He said Jerusalem had been negotiating the details with Washington, when the US backed away from the idea upon concluding – after discussions with the Palestinians – that a further moratorium would not make that much of a difference in the future of the talks.

“The United States came to the conclusion, maybe even on the first day, regarding the additional 90 days, that if the Palestinians came to the table, they would talk about the 91st day, about extending the moratorium. This is not the way to achieve peace,” he said.

The prime minister said he hoped that the indirect talks through Mitchell would succeed in narrowing gaps on the core issues so the sides would then begin direct negotiations “with the goal of reaching a framework peace agreement.”

The new US approach was “good for Israel, and it is good for peace,” Netanyahu said.

Also on Monday, the EU’s 27 foreign ministers issued a statement on the Middle East that stayed well within the parameters of previous EU statements, and did not allude – as some feared it might – to any intention to recognize a Palestinian state unilaterally if an agreement were not reached within a certain period.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying there was “nothing new” in the EU statement, and that Israel welcomed the statement’s repeated emphasis on the need to “reach a solution through negotiations.”

At the same time, the ministry said it would have expected a clearer call to the Palestinians to “resume the talks immediately.”

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