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(photo credit: AP)
Amid ongoing tension between the US and Israel over settlements, the Obama administration is stressing that it does not expect Israel to act alone and that Arab states must take meaningful steps in tandem with Israel.
"We're not expecting that the Israelis do something for nothing," a senior State Department official told The Jerusalem Post, following Monday's meeting between US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which failed to fully bridge the differences concerning settlements.
The official, who is familiar with Mitchell's thinking, gave a wide range of measures the administration was pressing the Arab states to take to reignite the peace process and reassure Israel its demands were not one-sided.
The gestures being proposed include Arab leaders taking trips to Jerusalem as well as receiving Israeli leaders in Arab capitals; Arab countries opening interest offices and increasing trade ties with the Jewish state; Arab states allowing over-flights of Israeli aircraft, which would cut down on passengers' travel time; and joint Israeli-Arab sponsorship of cultural and humanitarian projects.
Diplomatic sources noted that they were focusing these normalization efforts on North African and Gulf states they believe most amenable to improved ties with Israel, as opposed to Saudi Arabia, seen as the custodian of Islam, whose prestige and influence in the region could ultimately prove key to sealing any deal with the Palestinians.
While there is little expectation that Saudi Arabia would take such steps at this time, the sources said, the idea was that Riyadh wouldn't prevent others from making such gestures; in other words, they want to "prevent the Saudis from being hostile" and using their privileged role to sabotage the nascent peace efforts.
In that vein, the administration has focused on Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, countries which had ties with Israel that were broken off during the early months of the intifada and never restored, and Qatar and Oman, with whom Israel has had some official relations in the past, and the United Arab Emirates.
One diplomatic official described Morocco as being in the category of "low-hanging fruit" because of its relatively moderate government and previous relationship with Israel.
As part of the American effort to coax steps from Arab states, perhaps prodding Morocco taking a leadership role, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Morocco's King Muhammad VI this past weekend saying he hoped Morocco would "be a leader in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world."
According to the letter, which the Moroccans made public, Obama reiterated that Israel had to "stop settlements, dismantle outposts, and remove roadblocks," while saying the Palestinians needed to continue "to build up their security forces to confront terrorism, ending incitement, and reforming their institutions to build a Palestinian state."
While the issue of settlements was a key part of the meeting between Mitchell and Barak, both sides said other issues, including those alluded to in Obama's letter, played a role in the conversation.
The US would like to reach a point where all sides were ready to announce that they would be taking major steps on these and related issues together.
"Our expectation is that everyone is in this together and that they have to take steps together," the State Department official said.
He indicated that one potential format for a such an announcement would be an international conference, though a more low-key form of dissemination, such as press reports or diplomatic cables, could also suffice.
However, the idea of an international conference to launch a renewed and reinvigorated diplomatic process, which has been bandied about for months, has not been grasped too enthusiastically by Israel because of a lack of clarity as to what the content of such a conference would be.
In the meantime, both sides reported making inroads during the recent Mitchell-Barak meeting in London.
"We've been making progress. It's not overnight progress. We're going to continue to have conversations not just with Israel, but with the Palestinians and Arab states across the region," the official said.
Still, he stressed that when it came to the settlement issue, "Our position hasn't changed at all."
The US has been calling for a stop to all settlement activity, including natural growth, as specified in the road map peace plan. Israel, however, has maintained that such a total freeze wouldn't be possible if normal life were to continue in these communities, and have reportedly offered a few-months-long temporary freeze as a compromise.
There is a possibility that a bridging formula could be found whereby Israel's temporary freeze is accepted under the rubric of restarting talks that include final status issues, of which settlements is one.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak briefed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Tuesday along with the inner cabinet, which includes Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon, on his talks with Mitchell.
While there was speculation that Mitchell will come to Israel next week and meet with Netanyahu, nothing has yet been announced or formalized.
Mitchell has also held meetings with several Arab officials, more in number and frequency than his parleys with Israel, according to his office, in an effort to revive the incipient ties that developed between Israel and more moderate Muslim states during the Oslo process in the 1990s.
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel developed tentative relations with some of the Persian Gulf states, opening trade offices in Qatar and Oman in 1996, and also developing trade ties with Morocco and Tunisia.
But within months of the outbreak of Palestinian violence in September 2000, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia cut ties. Israel's interest section in Qatar remained open, but at very low level and out of the public eye. In addition, both Egypt and Jordan recalled their ambassadors.
While Egypt and Jordan eventually returned their envoys, the ties with the other Arab countries were never restored, something the United States would like to rectify.