US special envoy George Mitchell completed his latest Middle East trip on Sunday without managing to formally launch indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks. But the former senator from Maine intends to return in about a week and hopes it will be possible to begin those “proximity talks” then.
After Mitchell’s departure, the US Embassy said that his talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his three-day trip “were positive and productive.”
“His meetings continued our efforts to improve the atmosphere for peace and for proceeding with proximity talks. Ambassador David Hale, a deputy to special envoy Mitchell, will work with the parties this week to prepare for the special envoy’s return to the region next week,” the embassy said.
Related Analysis: Progress, of sorts
After meeting with Mitchell early on Sunday morning for their second conversation during the three-day visit, Netanyahu told the cabinet at its weekly meeting that “Israel wants to begin the peace process immediately. The US wants to start the peace process immediately. I can only hope that the Palestinians will want to start the peace process immediately. In the coming days, we will know if the peace process gets underway. I hope that it will. The talks with the US and its representatives were very positive.”
An Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post, “We are more hopeful than we were before that we are on the verge of the resumption of talks. The Israeli position is that [proximity talks] have to be a corridor to direct talks that will solve the really serious issues on the table.”
Those talks would deal with the core issues including Jerusalem, refugees and borders.
“It is clear that serious negotiations and actual decisions on the core issues can only happen in the framework of direct talks,” the official said.
It is anticipated that the proximity talks will be launched without particular fanfare, without any kind of grandiose formal invitation to the sides. There is a provision for them to last for several months, the Post has learned, although if it seems possible to move quickly to the next stage, of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the US will certainly encourage that.
Rather than shuttling back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem seeking to broker progress on specific core issues of dispute, Mitchell and the other American mediators may play a less dramatic role, simply hearing out the two sides and taking note of their positions, in the hope of being able to thereby construct a useful framework for subsequent direct talks.
This kind of low-key US role, almost that of an observer, is a more-than-possible scenario, the Post has learned, though it may be that the proximity talks will take on a dynamic of their own.
Despite a plea at the weekend from Abbas for a US-imposed peace plan, Washington has no intention of seeking to impose any arrangement in the foreseeable future. Rather, it continues to regard negotiated progress as the best way forward. And at the end of a visit described by Israeli and American officials as positive, the US is optimistic that conditions are now more encouraging for the indirect talks to begin.
Similarly, the US is not mediating any discussion about a Palestinian state within temporary borders, despite reports to the contrary in the Hebrew media. That notion, publicly rejected by Abbas on Saturday, was not even raised in the course of the latest Mitchell visit, the Post has learned.
On a visit to the Efrat settlement on Sunday, National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) said he was pleased that in his conversations with the US, Netanyahu had rejected any attempt to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin (Likud) told the Post the government intended to stand firm against any attempt to extend the 10-month moratorium on new Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria beyond its expiration on September 26.
The moratorium ends then, and after that construction will resume, Begin said.
The PA on Sunday struck a more pessimistic tone with respect to Mitchell’s visit.
It said that he did not bring with him an Israeli commitment to stop construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
A senior PA official in Ramallah said that all Mitchell brought was a request to start indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israel and a US pledge to pursue efforts to achieve a two-state solution.
The official expressed disappointment over Washington’s failure to “force” Israel to freeze construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. According to the official, Mitchell told the Palestinians that he would return to the region after the Arab League foreign ministers meet on May 1 to discuss whether to back US attempts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Meanwhile, Abbas has been invited to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama on ways of relaunching the peace process, chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Erekat said that the invitation was delivered to Abbas by Mitchell during their meeting in Ramallah on Friday.
Erekat said that Abbas has accepted the invitation and that the visit would probably take place next month.
Abbas’s office confirmed that he has been invited to Washington for talks with Obama, but said that no date has been set.
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv said it could not confirm that invitation.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said the talks with Obama would focus on US efforts to resume direct peace talks between the PA and Israel.
He added that the Palestinians would not agree to the resumption of direct talks that don’t include all final-status issues, first and foremost Jerusalem.
Abu Rudaineh also denied that Netanyahu had offered the Palestinians a state with temporary borders.
“A state with temporary borders means that we would give up Jerusalem,”
he said. “This is an unacceptable solution which would destroy the
The PA stopped direct negotiations with Israel during Operation Cast Lead.
Since taking office in March 2001, Netanyahu has called for the resumption of such talks.
The Palestinians have insisted that Israel stop construction in West
Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem before they return to the table.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon
will be in Washington this week to discuss the peace process as well as
security-related issues such as Iran.
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